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by Stephen Logan on 20th September 2011
In recent weeks somebody has been tampering with the links and profiles on dozens of SEO-related Wikipedia pages including Aaron Wall and Barry Schwartz. This is nothing new of course. It’s an open platform that is almost entirely reliant on visitor contributions, as such anybody can anonymously adjust content as they deem fit. But what does this mean for the future of Wikipedia profiles, and the appearance of SEO on the site?
In the case of the SEO, profiles are being stripped of their links and some are being nominated for deletion. As such the recipient loses any of the value that they may have been receiving. Now whether this is being done to damage competitors or attack the industry is unclear, but it does perhaps expose the risk of creating a page that is accessible to the world and can be edited by anyone.
The SEO Profile Killer and Johann Hari Scandal
Now this reminded me of the recent shenanigans involving Johann Hari, a columnist at the Independent newspaper. As well as serious accusations of plagiarism, Hari was found to have maliciously edited the Wikipedia entries of a number of fellow journalists. This wasn’t simply a case of stripping out a few links, he was actively engaged in attempting to damage or inflate the reputations of professionals to better serve his own viewpoints.
This provides the perfect example of both the power and fallibility of Wikipedia as an information resource. Some might deem it improper to use it as a promotional tool, particularly if you are only seeking a link or to bolster your own status. As such, perhaps it’s no bad thing that a few SEOs have seen their profiles removed or links taken away. Others though might suggest that as a global hub of knowledge, it should have as many entries as possible – just as long as they aren’t promotional or inaccurate.
Inherent Risk of an Amendable Public Profile
Unfortunately Wikipedia is easily abused. This is why academics will never use it as a primary source (although can potentially use citations within articles) and most take the information with a pinch of salt. But if your profile is attacked, going unnoticed by yourself or the moderators, it can still seriously damage your reputation. This is perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the Johann Hari saga.
Whilst he might claim that it was only to expose journalists, the truth is that anybody reading his amendments could potentially read it as truth and therefore alter their opinion of the subject – perhaps irreparably. If the articles are fallacious, then this can be hugely detrimental.
In terms of the SEO attacks, the biggest question that appears to have been raised by the perpetrator is one of deservedness. Do people who are well-known within the industry really deserve a profile page on Wikipedia? Whilst I know the names of Barry Schwartz and Aaron Wall, 99.9% of the world don’t – and probably have no interest in what they do or say. The apparent lack of ‘significant coverage’ from independent sources is the real crux of the issue.
The discussion on the page relating to Barry Schwartz’s removal sheds a little light on the problem. Barry argues that he has been cited in a number of newspapers and blogs whilst also appearing in news stories on NBC. However, a number of users have counter-claimed that these are only snippets or unverifiable and therefore don’t hold much weight when judging notability.
So does an SEO really need a Wikipedia page?
After all, there are plenty of industries of a similar size that don’t have their notable professionals featured in Wikipedia, so why should SEO be different? There aren’t pages dedicated to the leading dentists; however, there will undoubtedly be those who appear at conferences or write on the subject that have a certain notoriety – essentially the Barry Schwartz of the dentistry world.
On the flip side though, if the profile has been created and verified, then why remove it? How notable do you really need to be? This is where arguments of potential bias and deliberate vendetta-style attacks can seep in. After all, why is an accurate (presumably) profile being recommended for deletion otherwise?
It’s a strange situation, but one that could only ever be made possible on such an open public resource. There is a major distinction to be drawn between the actions and even motives of Johann Hari and the user targeting SEOs (for one, Hari used a false name). Whilst both may have personal issues with the intended target, at least the latter is working by the Wikipedia guidelines and is even attracting additional support. Johann on the other hand was simply out to serve his own needs and use the online encyclopaedia as a weapon.
There is so much information on Wikipedia that effective moderation is almost impossible. As such it is reliant on the public to fill the gaps. Invariably this creates its own issues, as demonstrated in both these cases. What Johann Hari did was wrong, and he is by no means alone in this kind of tampering, but without knowing the motive, it’s difficult to pass judgement on the SEO profile killer.
Maybe he or she is keeping egos in check, maybe they have a grudge against the industry and its practitioners or perhaps they are simply looking to uphold the quality guidelines of the site. It’s unfortunate for those who have seen their pages decimated, but ultimately it is up to the community to decide what stays and what goes. As such there isn’t a great deal that anybody can do except make sure that all citations are in place, regularly check their page for updates and fight their own corner when necessary.
Thanks to Rishil for identifying the culprit removing SEO profiles.