How to solve your Wikipedia problem. (Yes, you have one.)August 14, 2012: 10:30 AM ET
Wikipedia has become the new thorn in the side of countless startups, small businesses, celebrities, and prominent executives. Here's how to take control of the situation.
By Ryan Holiday
FORTUNE -- Here's the scary reality: your customers "go-to" source for information -- where they learn about your company, read your history and get their facts -- is wrong the majority of the time. I'm talking about Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia shows up in the top 3 results of more than 70% of Google and Bing searches (99% for Google UK) yet 60% of company Wikipedia pages contain factual errors.
Odds are, those numbers include pages about your company, its prominent executives, investors, and possibly even its products. And that matters because today lazy journalists from major publications copy entire Wikipedia paragraphs in their coverage. If you think that your potential customers, partners, and new hires aren't using Wikipedia to make decisions, then you're fooling yourself. Wikipedia informs the world.
So it's critical that you not only have a Wikipedia page, but that it fairly and accurately presents the truth about your business. But with its clunky code, obscure rules, and an increasingly hostile community, Wikipedia has become the new thorn in the side of countless startups, small businesses, celebrities, and prominent executives. I know this because they come to me for help.
Here's how you can solve the problem:
1. Be notable enough for a page
Not anyone can have a Wikipedia page. Wikipedia pages must meet the site's threshold of "notability." Your business could be a local institution, serving millions of people a year, but if you or the specific fact you wish were mentioned on your page has never been written about by the right media outlets, it's not noteworthy, as far as Wikipedia is concerned. If a statement hasn't been explicitly stated or backed by a reputable media outlet, Wikipedia editors yank it from the database.
So if you want a page, seek out coverage from third-party, reliable sources. Think newspapers, magazines, books, and journals, not your personal blog, press releases, or a Facebook page.
But it's easier to hack this than you think. If you're starting from scratch, check out HelpAReporterOut.com and start getting free, easy press from reputable reporters. If there are things you want people to know about your business, you better make sure you've communicated them to the media. Otherwise Wikipedia is incapable of presenting that information. I'm actually suggesting you speak to the media with your Wikipedia page in mind.
2. Do not blindly edit your own page
Wikipedia is extremely wary of marketers and PR experts trying to control their clients' Wikipedia pages. And for good reason. Editors with conflicts of interest often violate Wikipedia's sacred rules, like having a neutral point of view and verifiability. You might think that rushing in to edit your page will fix things, but it will likely lead to disaster.
But that isn't to say you shouldn't contribute to the site at all -- because if you or an employee have never built an account and spent some time learning how Wikipedia works, you'll never know what you can and can't do with your own page. Read a good news article? Add a few facts to the subject's Wikipedia page. Clean up a few bare URL references. Do a bit of grammar and copyediting. Observe the community and figure out the quirks of the Wikipedia editors. This is tedious trial and error, but it's important.
Here's a simple trick to improve your entries or make one without doing anything risky. Go to the Talk page of the entry rather than the article itself (every Wikipedia page has a Discussion section) and post your thoughts on what you'd like fixed. You need to tell the community who you are and your affiliation with the company, but if the facts and sources are on your side, they may listen.
If there is a specific edit you want, post a request for that edit. In your request, clearly lay out links to third-party, reliable sources, and provide direct quotations from those sources that will be used for a Wikipedia page. A Wikipedia editor will help ensure that those edits are written in a neutral tone and turned into code viewable on the Wikipedia page.You can even request that another editor create a page about you, provided that you include notable press and steer them in the right direction. But remember, no one will do puff piece for you.
3. Fight fire with fire
What do you do when a hater or a disgruntled employee uses their knowledge of the rules of Wikipedia to slander and defame you? My answer may be controversial (I am, after all, a media manipulator): Fight fire with fire.
Wikipedia is a tough community with confusing rules. But remember they also have this clearly stated rule: Ignore All Rules. Sometimes you have to break the rules to get your fair shake. Yes, I am saying you may have to surreptitiously post on your page or other pages to make sure the truth gets out. If you do this, cover your tracks, don't get greedy, and fix only what is untrue. There are a few firms out there who can take care of Wikipedia problems discretely. I won't recommend any, but they are out there.
I can share a million horror stories from companies paying firms to control their competitors' Wikipedia pages to biased editors out to define the people or companies they hate. I once handled the overhaul of one high-profile starlet's Wikipedia page, and that was followed less than a week later by a six-page spread in a big tabloid that so obviously used our positive and flattering language from Wikipedia that I was almost scared it would be its own scandal. But it wasn't. No one noticed that the reporter had essentially ripped off Wikipedia for not only his story ideas.
You have to control your page. Otherwise, you risk putting yourself in the awkward position a friend of mine found himself in when he was recently asked the following question by a national newspaper reporter: "So, according to Wikipedia, you're a failed screenwriter. Is that true?"
Ryan Holiday is the author of Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (Portfolio; www.trustmeimlying.com). He is a media strategist for authors and brands.