SEO Tips & Tactics From A Wikipedia Insider

I am a Wikipedia administrator, and I specialize in complex investigations. When Jonathan Hochman suggested I write an article for Search Engine Land, he mentioned that this publication and its readers regard Wikipedia as a search engine. It probably comes as no surprise that my spine stiffens at that concept, but media professionals and Wikipedia volunteers seldom understand each other. So I’ll illustrate my perspective with an example: let’s have a look at some politicians.

I cite this instance because it was not one of the cases I handled and it has already been in the news. On January 27, 2006 the Lowell Sun ran a story about Wikipedia’s biography of Representative Marty Meehan, reporting that an IP address which originated from the United States House of Representatives congressional offices had erased the congressman’s broken term limit pledge from the article. Here’s the edit, which Wikipedia jargon calls a "page diff".

The story became national news when people uncovered other congressional attempts to spin Wikipedia biographies of sitting legislators. That attention led to a fresh pledge by Rep. Meehan that his staff would stop editing Wikipedia. Several of his embarrassed colleagues issued similar assurances.

Rep. Meehan has since become Chancellor Meehan of the University of Massachusetts, but that IP address continues to be shared by various congressional offices. So we’ll see whether those pledges have stood the test of time. The block history raises my eyebrow.

A few clues and clicks from there I reach the biography of New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy and locate an edit by that IP address dated 19 June 2007 that deleted a well-referenced but unflattering section describing an MSNBC interview that had exposed her ignorance about an assault weapons ban she had proposed. Other dubious activity from June 2007 includes blanking vandalism to the biographies of two Tennessee state politicians: Matthew Hill and David Davis. Someone who had access to a congressional office computer didn’t want the public to read properly cited information about their ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

I uncovered this information in ten minutes and my sysop tools weren’t necessary for any of the research. You can see for yourself:

None of those inappropriate edits remained in Wikipedia’s live version very long. Site volunteers reverted most of them one minute after implementation; the longest endured for nineteen minutes. What is notable for this discussion is how each action gets logged in site histories where it remains a public and voluntary disclosure. Anyone with an Internet connection can find the rest of that trail; it remains fresh as morning snow. A good follow-up exercise for SEO professionals would be to track the edits that led up to that IP address’s April 2007 blocks for link spamming the congressional black caucus website.

As an administrator I am continually surprised by how often I see edits that serve little purpose except to place the editor at risk for adverse news coverage. Few of the people who have a professional interest in knowing how Wikipedia operates actually possess more than a superficial understanding of its workings. Copyleft licensure, for example, requires that each action contain an authorship notation and ensures the information remains freely reproducible. Activities at Wikipedia are transparent, yet many individuals who have a professional reputation to protect behave as if their actions were guarded by an opacity the site does not possess. Except for article deletions and occasional courtesy blankings, Wikipedia’s archives remain public and accurate back to December 2001.

For each case that actually makes the papers I see perhaps two dozen that look newsworthy. Only a corresponding ignorance among investigative journalists has shielded the rest. The press has a habitual reliance on tips yet they have little inherent need for tips when the story relates to Wikipedia. In my estimate they will soon learn how to research leads for themselves. Wikipedia’s prominence as the Internet’s most popular nonprofit volunteer-driven site usually means a story cascades into international coverage once it breaks.

In January 2007 Microsoft learned a hard lesson in black hat tactics. Blogger Rick Jelliffe reported that Microsoft had offered to pay him to edit Wikipedia’s Open Office XML page on their behalf. The strong appearance of impropriety quickly turned that revelation into international news.

One point that was lost in most news reports was that Microsoft might actually have had a legitimate point about the balance of coverage on Wikipedia’s Open Office XML article. The folks at Microsoft could have improved that page while avoiding a PR debacle. Never mind what the Telegraph story says: I do not issue site bans simply because an editor has a conflict of interest. Nor, to my knowledge, does any Wikipedia administrator. We do ask people such as yourselves to act with discretion. So to address the original matter about Wikipedia being a search engine, site policy explicitly disavows that purpose.

Wikipedia’s Conflict of Interest guideline dovetails with several policies and experienced editors have written essays to provide supportive advice. These ought to be must-read material for any Search Engine Land regular. Rather than regurgitate what they already say I’ll summarize what I consider the most important points and add some suggestions of my own. These tips are not the official position of the Wikimedia Foundation, yet there’s a good chance that business editors who run afoul of policy will encounter either me or someone I’ve trained.

Wikipedia white hat activity in a nutshell: Designate a particular individual to be the Wikipedia liaison. Have that person register an account and declare the conflict of interest on the account’s user page. Then post suggested changes to article talk pages. For a variety of reasons this approach is safer and results in more durable changes than direct editing in conflict of interest situations.

Eight underused Wikipedia white hat strategies

  1. Provide line citations. This is one point where an SEO professional’s interests often coincide with Wikipedia’s goals: factual verification is important to the project. When used judiciously, citations can be the most durable way to send traffic to your client’s website. Focus on topics where that site is strong on content and compliant with Wikipedia’s Reliable Sources guideline. In many instances a client’s site may be a self-published source, which limits how it can be used as a reference. Sourcing is welcome at articles that are already flagged with requests for citations. In other instances it is better to post preformatted citation suggestions at article talk pages. Supply text that summarizes the referenced content when making a citation, use wikimarkup, and conform to whatever citation format is already in use at the page. Act with care in order to avoid Wikipedia’s spam blacklist or criticism from volunteer editors. Tailor each suggestion to relevant content in the particular article.
  2. Use edit summaries. These are courtesies to other editors who review your contributions in history files. Edit summaries are also an effective feedback to self-limit against link spam. If you can’t think of anything better to write than "inserting outgoing link", it’s time to rethink your practices.
  3. Seek mentorship. Wikipedia’s Adopt-a-user mentorship program helps new users adjust to site standards. This can be particularly useful because some people come to the site with misconceptions drawn from inaccuracies in mainstream press reports about Wikipedia. Experienced editors and administrators interpret formal mentorship as a positive sign.
  4. Get to know the "what links here" tool. Each Wikipedia page has an index that controls the internal incoming traffic. Wherever a Wikipedia article has a durable outgoing link to your website, examine its incoming links list for any obvious omissions, then run a text search on those omitted pages. If the title of the other article already exists in unlinked form, go ahead and link it. Otherwise compose sample linking text and propose it at that article’s talk page.
  5. Utilize article categories. Another route that drives internal Wikipedia traffic is its category system. For instance, Wikipedia’s "Search engine optimization" article has four categories: "Internet advertising and promotion", "Internet terminology", "Search engine optimization", and "Internet marketing by method". Learn the category structure and add categories as appropriate at articles that link to your client’s site. Categories and wikilinks are also good ways to locate unreferenced article passages where your client’s site might become a citation.
  6. Develop a watchlist. This tool provides swift notification of talk page replies and article changes. Use it to keep in touch with other editors. Watchlists also alert you to obvious vandalism and a track record of reverting vandalism helps you earn the respect of other Wikipedians.
  7. Contact WikiProjects. WikiProjects are coordinating centers where Wikipedians with similar interests plan and prioritize article improvements. When you propose a major edit to an article talk page, a polite query for input at the relevant WikiProject can generate help and feedback.
  8. Accept feedback. If your links are getting reverted and experienced editors are making complaints then you’ve probably misunderstood site standards. Pay attention to what they tell you, ask questions, and adjust your approach.

Although Wikipedians are understandably skeptical about conflict of interest editing, SEO professionals who respect the site as an encyclopedia rather than as a quirky search engine can earn acceptance from its volunteers. Look for approaches that reconcile your goal of sending traffic to websites with Wikipedia’s goal of being an informative and reliable first stop for research.

Durova is a Wikipedia administrator who confronts some of the site’s most disruptive editors. She uses a pen name to avoid harassment in real life. After graduating Columbia College, Durova attended film school and also served in the US Navy.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Search & Social | Search Engines: Wikipedia | SEO: Writing & Body Copy | Social Media Marketing


About The Author: is the pen name for Lise Broer, a Wikipedia administrator who confronts some of the site's most disruptive editors. After graduating Columbia College, Lise attended film school and also served in the US Navy.

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  • Michael Martinez

    “When Jonathan Hochman suggested I write an article for Search Engine Land he mentioned that this publication and its readers regard Wikipedia as a search engine.”

    I’m shocked to read that Jonathan Hochman would make such an outlandish suggestion. I’ve never seen anyone in the search engine optimization community suggest that Wikipedia is a search engine. In fact, I can only find four Web pages where ‘Wikipedia is a search engine’ occurs in on-page text and none of them are SEO Web sites.

    While there has certainly been a lot of abuse of Wikipedia by people promoting Web sites, Wikipedia’s administrative staff is not qualified to evaluate every article edit for accuracy and authority. The dispute resolution process — as many former Wikipedia admins and editors have noted on internal mailing lists — often favors the less authoritative edits.

    The lack of process for determining authority (beyond who can garner the most volunteer compliments in user pages) is the chief reason for why Wikipedia is plagued with bogus edits in the first place. Maybe Citizendium will do a better job in that respect, but even that remains to be seen.

    Unfortunately, the advice you offer here is inadequate.

  • Jack K1

    Zoiks, an article about how *not* to cheat the wiki-system.

    If you follow Durova’s advice, you’ll be doing your clients a service.


  • Darren McLaughlin

    The comment about people thinking WikiPedia is a search engine is strange.

    Now, thinking of it as a “place to spam” might be another story altogether.

  • Lucky Lester

    You get what you pay for and just like the DMOZ; the Wikipedia volunteers that administer these pages will set themselves up with little fiefdoms. The thing about fiefdoms is that oft times they become corrupted and thus render themselves unreliable. Just like the DMOZ, Wikipedia too shall one day succumb to their over bloated sense of self importance and fall off of the collective radars of the netizens.

  • JEHochman

    I’m pointing at Danny for the idea that Wikipedia is a search engine. This isn’t such a wacky idea. There’s no law that says a search engine needs to be a box where you click a button and get a page full of results. We can define search as the behaviors people do when looking for information. Today, a lot of people are browsing Wikipedia for information.

    You can go to a general Wikipedia article and follow the links to more and more specific articles until you find what you are looking for. You can even go to a talk page, and ask a question, and somebody may provide an answer.

    Google works really well when you know what to call the thing you’re looking for. Unfortunately, if you don’t know what to ask for, Googlesque search engines often fail to return useful results. Wikipedia is really outstanding for that sort of search.

    Often my own searches start by Googling “(topic) Wikipedia” to quickly find the article and learn more about the subject and relevant terminology. Then I follow up with specific Google searches once I know what to ask for.

  • Danny Sullivan

    FYI, I have never, ever considered Wikipedia a search engine. To me, a search engine is a service that primarily points you to destination sites that provide information. Wikipedia is a destination site. We cover it here simply because it’s an important search tool, IE — research tool. Aside from that, nice advice I’m filing away to try someday for Wikipedia!

  • Danny Sullivan

    I should add — yes, we do have Wikipedia in the search engines category here, but that’s mainly because that’s our catch-all place for search engines and search resources in general.

  • Durova

    Interesting comments. This mirrors the reaction experienced Wikipedians often have when reading pieces about Wikipedia in the mainstream press: a large percentage have mischaracterized the site in one or more respects. Those mistakes really leap out at an experienced editor. Sysops like myself shake our heads, hoping it doesn’t cause an avalanche of problems. We pretty much have to edit protect at least one article every time Stephen Colbert mentions the site.

    Anyway, if SEO professionals agree that Wikipedia isn’t a search engine then I’m glad to be set straight. I’m planning some other pieces about Wikipedia site dynamics and underutilized white hat strategies that I hope will be useful to SEL readers.

  • Durovawatch

    Ok – I don’t know what is more disturbing. That Jessica Bowman has given Lise Diane Broer (Durova) the floor after she’d condescended to her, or that she is given any respect whatsoever after having once again libeled Greg Kohs (which she’s done elsewhere) in the comments to Ms. Bowman’s last article, “What To Do When Your Company Wikipedia Page Goes Bad.”

    Please read the Encyclopedia Dramatica article on Durova. – There is a reason that Durova/Lise fears harassment. She systematically abuses her administrative powers, all the while preaching good faith and good practice, and writing nice essays about how to get along. There is something really wrong with her.

    Take her advice, sure. But please deal with the woman at arm’s length. She’s got some axe to grind, and make sure it isn’t ground on you, on your business, and at your expense. She has no compunction about making up baldfaced lies and badmouthing your firm, or you, online. And she knows that there will be no repercussions.

    When I see the comment that Lise “comes into contact with the most disruptive editors” on Wikipedia, I have to think, ‘water does find its own level’. Lise turns good editors into bad with her aggressive tactics. She’s the worst of Wikipedia.

    Caveats to all.

  • JEHochman

    Hat tip to Mr. Gregory Kohs of MyWikiBiz for these enlightening remarks.

    Danny, would you be so kind as to block this troll for violating your comments policy. Thank you.

    And sorry if I misunderstood your position on Wikipedia not being a search engine.

  • thekohser

    Mr. Hochman, we’ve had earnest discussions recently. So, I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that you’d think I had anything to do with the comments made by “Durovawatch”. In fact, whenever I’ve posted comments to, I’ve used my own name, e-mail, and website as my signature. Why would I suddenly come on board with a new identity here?

    The fact that you demand the solution of “block this troll” shows just how potent is the mind-warping effect of the Wikipedia justice system. Out here in the real world, they don’t typically “block trolls” on open comment forums.

    Get a grip. I’m off to read the Encyclopedia Dramatica article now. I have a good amount of trepidation that my name will be saved for posterity in that wild and woolly forum. How will that serve my professional reputation that Durova so pointedly critiqued?

    You’d think I asked for all of this, but I didn’t. I asked to run a small business, adding helpful, fairly-written, encyclopedic articles about notable businesses to the world’s largest encyclopedia. About 60% of the admins I encountered thought that was a bad idea. Another 35% who approved pf the concept were systematically shouted down by the most venomous 5% of critics like Guy Chapman, Calton B., and Durova. That’s consensus for ya.

  • JEHochman

    If you look at SEL’s comments policy, they require civility. Don’t say anything here you wouldn’t say to somebody in person. The above poster has clearly violated that, so yeah, I can call them a troll and ask for them to be banned because they are lowering the level of discourse below an acceptable level.

    I am glad you post under your own name. So do I here, and everywhere else. If Durovawatch isn’t connected to you, my apologies.

    What’s the big deal about Wikipedia? It’s just a website. You can post your stuff on Centaire instead. If Wikipedia is hostile to business listings, that’s your opportunity. You should encourage them to stay the course and compliment them graciously for doing their thing while you fill that unmet need. I don’t understand why you would bash anybody. It doesn’t make sense.

  • GoodFaith

    What on Earth is a “complex investigation?” And why on Earth can’t this woman get a life? Durova is a obsessive busybody on a witch hunt. She uses a pen name to protect her privacy, but makes no effort to respect that of others.

    Also, why is it so bad that someone can’t edit their own bio page? If someone does something stupid, it can be easily reverted. I see nothing wrong with politician editors — and I don’t care if Marty Meehan, Henry Kissinger or Bob Terwilliger want to edit Wikipedia, nor should anyone else. This sort of self-righteous meddling must stop.

  • Danny Sullivan

    If people want to raise issues with the article or the author, in terms of the content or background, that’s fine. Keep it factual and civil according to our guidelines.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    “In January 2007 Microsoft learned a hard lesson in black hat tactics.”

    I wouldn’t call that “black hat”, actually, I think it was more of a “gotcha”.

    As I wrote at the time,
    “it’s quite a feat to make me feel sympathy for Microsoft”

    The basic problem is that Wikipedia doesn’t operate like businesspeople expect, and very little of the Wikipedia cult-ure is explained to them.

    This article is a good try, kudos for the effort, but I don’t think it’ll really “speak to them”.

  • Durovawatch

    Lise/Durova’s suggestions for succesful “white hat” involvement on Wikipedia aren’t honest in self-criticism (or self-examination) of Wikipedia. Seth Finkelstein is correct – they won’t speak to the business community – because they are myopic and self-centered. Her suggestions are made from the perspective of people who have unlimited hours to spend online, doing as they will. That’s not the case for most business entrepreneurs. Look at her suggestions, and you can guesstimate that it will cost your company a minimum of 10-20 manhours per week, not only to create and monitor content, but to politic with the Wikipedia administration – which is by its very nature hostile to small businesses – hell, they were even hostile to Microsoft. For the time commitment demanded alone, it isn’t a realistic from a cost-benefit analysis to involve your business on Wikipedia. And Lise/Durova a forgot to tell you one of the most important things: if you are on there and you want off, you can’t just demand it. Once you enter their world, they own you, and your company’s page.

    If you’ve pre-announced yourself as a “conflict of interest” candidate, be prepared to have your “designated liaison” spending about the above-mentioned time convincing, begging, tarrying favor, and generally apologizing for the fact that your enterprise is profit-making, and that you’d like to put forth a positive impression. Teenagers and tech support personnel who may well be inexperienced or jealous will become your judges and jury members for any small edit conflict.

    I’ve been harsh in my criticism of Lise/Durova, but to be fair, she’s not honest with new entrants to Wikipedia, in her article. Worse, she’s not warning you of the real dangers to your business – that administrators can behave as they will without repercussion. Her own behavior ( , despite her sanctimonious pontifications are the clearest evidence of the hypocrisy that permeates that environment.

  • Durovawatch

    Mr. Hochman: It always gives me a good belly laugh when Wikipedians try to assert their bully power off-wiki. No less than when they are confronted with the very truth which they would “ban hammer” out of existance in the very undemocratic, and too-often unjust environment that is Wikipedia.

    If you are interested in extending WP:RULES off wiki, you just violated WP:NPA (no personal attacks), WP:CIVIL, as well as implying that content is subject to censure.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Hey Everyone–

    Appreciate the comments all around, but I’m closing comments because it’s getting a bit heated, points have been made, and we’re short people to be watching over the comments closely here, sorry.


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