Fighting Wikipedia Spam

When a hotel investment firm decided a 10-block stretch of Miami Beach needed a name, the easy part was coming up with SoBe 10, to catch a little of the cachet of South Beach. The hard part was getting the name to catch on.

The firm, Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, decided the best way to get people to use its made-up name was to pretend people were already using it. Not long after he dreamed up SoBe 10, Gregory Rumpel, the firm’s executive vice president, inserted it into Wikipedia’s South Beach page. The modified entry read, “The ten blocks along Collins Avenue, from 15th Street to 24th Street, also known as the SoBe 10 or Power Mile, are considered to be the epicenter of South Beach nightlife and entertainment.”

Wikipedia’s openness makes it a tempting target for those looking to create their own versions of reality. But while most people know that Wikipedia is not 100 percent reliable, readers still expect entries to have some basis in fact.

Even when the “information” promoters add to Wikipedia is actual, rather than aspirational, it decreases the value of the site. Wikipedia articles are intended to be neutral and objective, like the content of traditional encyclopedias. Business owners and publicists who write or edit where their own interests are concerned are therefore acting deceitfully, implying a neutral perspective they do not actually have.

Wikipedia’s page on Wikipedia spam offers clear guidelines on how interested parties can avoid inadvertently interfering with the site’s mission. Would-be editors are instructed, “If you are here to tell readers how great something is, or to get exposure for an idea or product that nobody has heard of yet, you are in the wrong place.” The page also cautions users against creating pages for their own products and websites, explaining that “Most often, when a person creates a new article describing his or her own work, it is because the work is not yet well-known enough to have attracted anyone else’s attention.” Just as few employers go to candidates’ parents to get letters of recommendation, few Wikipedia readers want to hear that something is noteworthy from its creator.

Unfortunately, often publicists are more concerned with promoting products than they are with protecting the reliability of third-party websites. As we increasingly get our information from user-generated content – from Wikipedia rather than the Encyclopedia Britannica or from Yelp rather than newspaper restaurant reviews – we gain access to new voices and to more comprehensive data, but we lose important information about authors’ interests and motivations. A Wikipedia entry could be written by an expert, or by someone looking to introduce new “facts.” A good review on Yelp may come from a satisfied customer, but it may also come from the business’s owner or from someone who has never even visited the business.

A recent column in The New York Times revealed that a company called Softline Solutions, which provides reputation management among other online services, paid 25 cents for positive reviews posted on Yelp about its client, Southland Dental. Yelp filters reviews that appear to be fake, placing them on a separate page, but acknowledges that some legitimate content gets incorrectly filtered out and some less-than-legitimate content slips through.

Wikipedia’s vigilant editors and administrators, for the most part, ensure that profit motives are kept in line with the site’s mission, preserving reliability. By strictly enforcing community standards and deleting promotional content, Wikipedians send the message that any attempt to take advantage of the site is unlikely to succeed. In a 2010 press release, the public relations company Punch Communications advised other firms to avoid marketing on Wikipedia, not because it lowers the quality of the site, but because the risk of getting caught is too high. “While it may seem like a quick hit at first, once [a] post is deleted, the agency finds themselves having overpromised and under-delivered; something we all hate to do,” Pete Goold, a managing director at the company, said.

The same openness which allows promotional content to enter Wikipedia also helps to weed it out. Shortly after the mention of SoBe 10 appeared on Wikipedia’s South Beach page, an anonymous editor removed it, with the concise justification, “I’ve deleted the following, which is a made-up designation inserted for marketing purposes.”

As wikis become a bigger part of our lives, we owe ever greater thanks to those who keep them as clean and accurate as possible. In a letter on the site, Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, writes, “Commerce is fine. Advertising is not evil. But it doesn’t belong here. Not in Wikipedia.” Keeping advertising out, however, requires hard work and dedication. And surviving without advertising requires the support of readers. Not everyone who reads Wikipedia can afford to donate to its mission, but it’s worth remembering the amount of work that goes into keeping the site free of promotional content, and also keeping it just plain free.

About Larry M. Elkin 533 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

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