Why you should care about wikis

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The day before Christmas, a draft article appeared on the Internet news site reporting that an unnamed customer at Pano's restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y., earlier that morning had found a rubber glove in his sandwich.

When contacted a few days later about the incident, restaurant owner Pano Georgiadis said the story is fiction. "This is the first I've heard about it," Georgiadis said. The reporter couldn't be tracked down because he or she published under an untraceable Internet address. Nevertheless, the original account was polished and edited 15 times by other people, none of whom applied the basic journalistic principle of verifying its accuracy.

Welcome to wikis, the latest social media phenomenon to sweep the market. A wiki (a Hawaiian word meaning "quick") is a Web site where anyone can post and edit any content with little or no restriction. Although wikis have been around for 10 years, the concept exploded this year with the growth of the encyclopedia, now the 17th most popular site on the Internet. Wikipedia is about three times the size of Encyclopaedia Britannica; it lists 885,000 articles and 2.2 million words, most contributed by ordinary people.

Common sense says that a wiki should degenerate into chaos. But done right, it works remarkably well. Wikipedia has a core group of about a thousand volunteers who police its content and chase off troublemakers. In tests last fall, the journal Nature found Wikipedia to be nearly as accurate as Britannica.

But Wikipedia is the best of the best. Sites such as Wikinews illustrate the risks of community journalism. Lacking the infrastructure to ensure accuracy, the site is susceptible to error and abuse.

Either way, wikis are spreading fast. Thousand have sprung up in all kinds of specialty areas, and wikis are even being packaged for internal corporate use.

There's good and bad news in this for marketers. With the risk of abuse also comes the opportunity to use wikis to enhance your brand.

Start by going to and searching for mentions of your company, its products and executives. If you find a mistake, consult with the community on the site's discussion area. Get other people's buy-in to make changes. Then create a watch list for your most important company brands. You might need to do this in several languages as well. Also look for copyrighted text and images, since wiki content is supposed to be in the public domain.

You can even add entries to Wikipedia where none exists. Don't be self-promotional or you'll incur the ire of the volunteer monitors. But do list important products and people. lists other public wikis. Look for wikis that are well-trafficked and relevant to your business.

And keep an eye on Wikinews. While it's still an experiment, the Wikipedia coattails could pull it along quickly. If bad news ever hits your company, you'll want to know what's being said there. The owner of an upstate New York diner can probably afford to ignore it. But you can't.

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