Last year Home Depot spent over a half a billion dollars on measured media, according to TNS data. The money was well spent -- Google Trends shows that U.S. searches for Home Depot nearly doubled this year.
But it's highly likely that many consumers, in conducting their due diligence, landed on the company's Wikipedia article which, as of this writing, ranks fifth in a Google search for the retailer. Among a lot of neutral-to-positive information, you will learn that there have been several cases where illegal drugs were found inside some Home Depot merchandise in Massachusetts.
Like it or not, the Wikipedia open-source phenomenon looms large right where companies are increasingly spending billions of dollars to jockey for position: on search-engine results pages. A quick check of dozens of the brands on Ad Age's Top 200 Megabrands list reveals that Wikipedia often ranks high not just among Google search results but also among results from Yahoo, MSN Search and Ask.com. The same can also be said for media brands, celebrities, CEOs and other personalities.
Consider the following examples: Febreze's Wikipedia entry (No. 2 on Google) notes that the product may be harmful to household pets. The article on McDonald's (No. 4 on Google) basically summarizes the critical movie "Super Size Me." Even advertising icons Snap, Crackle and Pop aren't exempt. The trio's Wikipedia entry notes the team once had a short-lived adventure as superheroes in the U.K.
In all seriousness, as soon as brand managers learn where they stand on Wikipedia, there is a natural inclination to want to control it. Some, in fact, actively police it. After all, anyone can. But doing so is asking for trouble. Case in point: One firm offering to author Wikipedia articles for companies has been banned by the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that manages the site.
The Wikipedia community prides itself on making sure all articles have a neutral point of view, and this community can and will sniff out corporate manipulation of entries. Wikipedia policy, in fact, clearly states that all articles "must represent views fairly and without bias, and conflicts of interest significantly and negatively affect Wikipedia's ability to fulfill this requirement impartially."
Nevertheless, brands should have a way to challenge inaccurate information in a way that respects the wishes of the community. Wikipedia should carve out a special area on each page where brand managers and personas can respond in an official capacity to what the community has published. But until that happens, "look but don't touch" is the best advice to heed.