By Evan Sparks
Plug any brand name into a search engine, and you’re likely to find that a Wikipedia entry is in the top three results.
If the company is doing its SEO right, its homepage and products will be the top few results, but otherwise, Wikipedia floats to the surface. And it’s given prominent placement by Google, which lists a Wikipedia article—if one exists—about a search subject in an infobox on the upper right-hand corner of the results page.
The same goes for banks. There are thousands of banks with Wikipedia pages, even if it’s just a few sentences long.
What does that mean for your bank?
Wikipedia—a free, online, interactive encyclopedia—is the fifth-most-visited site in the world (and the seventh in the U.S.), according to Alexa. English-language Wikipedia alone includes more than 5.7 million articles, with hundreds more being added every day. If printed, English Wikipedia would fill 2,700 volumes—compared the 32 in the last printed Encyclopædia Britannica. It is, and continues to be, a remarkable human achievement.
When it comes to having a bank Wikipedia page, here’s what you need to keep top-of-mind: Literally anyone can edit the site. Tens of millions of people have edited Wikipedia. And this creates reputation risk for the subjects of Wikipedia articles, which, as the Federal Reserve notes, is the potential for negative publicity—true or not—to harm a bank. If anyone, anywhere, writes something false or unfairly tilts a Wikipedia article about your bank, you need to know when it happens—and have a plan to respond.
Understanding the risk
In a printed encyclopedia, space is limited, so only truly famous and important subjects are covered. There’s no meaningful space limit in a digital encyclopedia, so Wikipedia uses a different standard for inclusion: notability. Even a small bank may meet it, which can require as little as attestation in a few published sources. (Often the main source information is from the National Register of Historic Places, if a bank branch is landmarked.)
Once that page exists, it can be difficult to have it deleted. Seth Finkelstein, writing for the Guardian, bemoaned the article created about him. “For people who are not very prominent, Wikipedia biographies can be an ‘attractive nuisance,’” he said. “[I]nstead of falling on Wikipedia’s poor quality control, any negative effects are usually borne by the aggrieved party.”
And so the article sits—waiting for someone to come along and edit it. Negative, false or unfairly slanted information can be added at any time, by any person, for any reason. It might be a negative news story, an enforcement action from a regulatory website, a complaint from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s database—or just a random criticism. A “Controversy” or “Criticism” section on a bank’s page is a common occurrence on Wikipedia. These sections can be stealth vehicles for critics to trumpet their opinions, regardless of merit.
I’m not going to link to these pages, but a cursory review of pages about community banks on Wikipedia reveals the following:
- A New England bank has four sentences in its “History” section. One of them is about a single employee fired for a regulatory violation.
- A small bank on the West Coast has an entire section in its Wikipedia article about holdups and robberies at its locations.
- A section titled “Predatory Lending” that cites decade-old allegations takes up about one-quarter of the article about a Southern community bank.
Larger banks have even more robust sections featuring negative information. When this kind of content dominates Wikipedia pages, it informs customer awareness of the brand, since Wikipedia is such a top-ranked content source. In Wikipedia’s defense, glaring errors about important subjects and persons are often corrected within minutes. But thanks to Wikipedia’s influence, an error left unattended for even a short time can cause major damage.
Most of the problems with Wikipedia entries, however, are not outright errors, but rather outdated information, inappropriate emphases, and “weasel words” that distort the record. All told, these small problems compose a misleading picture. A negative Wikipedia article can be more dangerous than a comment on a lightly read blog, for example, because the negative content is amplified by the encyclopedic—and thus, authoritative—tone.
But if you’re troubled by what Wikipedia says about your bank, you hold the solution in your hands. You can edit Wikipedia yourself. Before you click that “edit this page” button at the top of an article, here are a few tips from experienced Wikipedians:
- Review and follow Wikipedia’s policies on conflicts of interest and paid editing. Wikipedia discourages editing articles for which you have a conflict of interest, such as directly editing an article about the bank that employs you. It also requires anyone who is paid to edit a page to disclose that. If you work for a bank, you can make an “edit request,” which flags problematic content and suggests an alternative for an editor without a conflict of interest to make.
- Create a user account.If you don’t create a user name, Wikipedia will log your IP address permanently to the edits on that page. If you’re editing from the office, future readers can use this information to trace the edits back to you. Creating a user name and establishing a track record as an editor will also allow you to edit “protected” pages—a handful of pages about prominent or contentious topics that require a confirmed user account—without additional review.
- Be proactive. Even if you’re not editing a page, keep track of the page about your bank by adding it to your “watchlist”—and review other people’s edits to make sure they check out. (If your bank is not currently included in Wikipedia, but it meets Wikipedia’s standards for notability, count yourself lucky. It may not worthwhile to create a page about your bank. That said, some banks may decide that it would be easier to create a new page from scratch than to salvage a problematic one that someone else creates.)
- Don’t make your page an advertisement. Articles on Wikipedia should be neutral and well-sourced. An article that reads like a press release or ad copy is just as inappropriate as one that’s weighted down with unbalanced criticism. A well-written article will likely contain an encyclopedic overview, a history section, a section about current products and services, a section about community activities and a section on reception—pro and con. (Wikipedia’s official guidelines recommend using the heading ‘Reception’ rather than ‘Controversies’ to indicate criticism sections.) Make it difficult for an ideologically or personally motivated antagonist to delete your edits by including citations for every potentially disputable assertion. Remember—it’s not your page; it’s an article about your bank.
- Respect the culture of Wikipedia. Don’t begin to edit with guns blazing. If you make drastic changes to an article, it’s likely other editors will think you’re a vandal—and immediately undo all of your edits. If you’re new to Wikipedia, start by learning the rules of the game. If the article you want to edit has numerous problems, begin by perusing (and editing) the “Talk” page to become familiar with the debates that have guided the article’s content thus far. Then, add tags to sections (or an entire article) indicating that it needs attention for neutrality, quality, citing sources, or other deficiencies. Taking these steps before editing engages the Wikipedia community in your work and takes steps to ensure that your good-faith edits will be respected.
Evan Sparks is editor-in-chief of the ABA Banking Journal. He has edited Wikipedia for nearly 15 years. Portions of this article are adapted from an earlier article in Philanthropy magazine and are reused here by permission.