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A Survival Guide to SEO & Wikipedia

“Who knows about Wikipedia?” asked Neil Patel. “Everyone,” he answered. And this is exactly why the session “Wikipedia and SEO” was completely packed at the 2007 SES New York show.

Moderated by Danny Sullivan, the panel featured Neil Patel, Co-Founder of ACS, Stephan Spencer, Founder and President of Netconcepts, Don Steele, Director of Digital and Enterprise Marketing at Comedy Central and Jonathan Hochman, Founder and President of JE Hochman & Associates.

So why exactly does everyone know about Wikipedia? For starters, it is pretty hard to ignore a site that consistently ranks in the top 10 organic results for just about any query. Consider Wikipedia the organic counterpart to eBay’s ubiquitous paid search ads. The success lies in the social media genius of a distributed model where anyone can contribute to the collective knowledge, trusting that the majority will balance the scales of information justice.

With over 1.7 million articles in English alone, it is clear why the site ranks so well. And as the equation goes, with visibility comes pageviews, and with pageviews come marketers.

Yet search engine marketers have been particularly fond of Wikipedia for an entirely different reason: its page rank. That is, until Wikipedia implemented a no-follow rule, indicating that outbound links should not be followed by search engine spiders. One would think that this move would kill all interest in Wikipedia’s value to the SEO crowd, yet a link is still a link, and many search engine marketers have realized that capitalizing on the original intent of a link (to secure traffic) can be just as good, if not better, than securing PageRank.

Dos and don’ts

One of the more confusing aspects of Wikipedia is the underlying editorial policy, which, of course, is appended with the “break all the rules” rule. So how exactly to ensure Wikipedia success? For Patel, It all comes down to building credibility as an editor by first adding valuable information, and then links. Spencer furthers this conversation by suggesting that links be placed in the “References” section, and not to external links. “And of course, it helps to communicate with the main editor” he added.

Patel was firm in stating that it is best to follow the community’s rules or face the consequences – something he experienced first hand. Furthermore, Hochman reminded the audience of wikisleuths – people that love finding spammers and placing you on the Wikimedia blacklist.

If you are hit hard by what Hochman calls “rabid Wikipedians,” all is not lost. Such was the case of Barry Schwartz. Having started a column about himself the community immediately questioned why he was notable enough to deserve a column. Fortunately, others came to his aid and opinion was swayed. The keys to such situations are to be civil and polite, according to Hochman. For Spencer, it is best that there should be no connection between you and the article subject and that you have plenty of allies on hand should an article be deleted.

Advice to marketers

“The traffic volume and success in SEO make Wikipedia a channel for us to understand,” said Steele, who works for the online leg of Comedy Central. Of course, his firm is a prime example of art imitating life in the Stephen Colbert “Wikiality” sketches.

“Our content is highly referenced,” said Steele, “requiring us to make sure that information is accurate, up to date and that our own site has the information being referenced.” While Steele never edits anything about Comedy Central’s shows, he makes an effort to understand what is being said and the impact on the audience.

For example, 24 hours after the South Park Easter Special, there were references to this episode on Wikipedia. “It becomes this community. If we do not understand that in 24 hours, that people are taking the time to talk about our show, we are not doing our job,” Steele concluded.

For numbers junkies, the site received 90,000 visitors from Wikipedia in March, making it a top 10 referrer. When one extracts the engines and sister sites, Wikipedia is the most consistent referrer over all. In Steele’s words, “We are saving about $20k a month.” When an audience member asked how much time this consumed, Steele suggested that monitoring is a daily task.

Of course, building a Wikipedia article could ultimately mean knocking oneself out of a first place result. The panel agreed that second place is not bad. The same tactic can be used to knock a competitor off. “If you have a competitor ranking first for “notebook computer” You could knock competitor off by building Wikipedia up – and your competitor down,” said Hochman.


One of the more debated topics of the session was the question of whether Wikipedia will overtake Google. In one sense, it appears that optimizing a Wikipedia article internally and externally has become more important than optimizing one’s own site.

To this, Sullivan suggested that “people are desperate for the next Google killer. It’s like asking what’s new in TV? Well, there is a new knob. We have HD, but for the majority, it doesn’t change. But that doesn’t make it easier for the person sick of writing about Google.” What many forget is that if Google suddenly decided so, Wikipedia could lose its traffic overnight.

Sullivan also commented on the no-follow rule. “I feel this resentment that I link to you, but you won’t like to me? I think the Wikipedia community should find a way to get it back. A lot of times they deserve the link.” Spencer chimed in that with a no-follow rule, it is actually the engine that holds the cards, and that it is possible that the links are indeed being followed. For those who are curious, Sullivan suggested Search Status to determine whether a link has a no-follow tag.

Sara Holoubek is a free agent consultant for the interactive advertising sector and its investors. She can be reached at saraholoubek@gmail.com.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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