What’s the most important platform for public relations? Twitter (I mean… X)? Cable news? YouTube? The right answer, of course, is Wikipedia. The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit has become the internet’s most prominent piece of real estate, with its 6 million articles attracting a staggering 260 million monthly viewers. No single source of information is referenced more frequently, and no other web result does more to shape perceptions of the people, organizations and brands we hear about in the news and search for online.
Just consider how Wikipedia dominates Google: Wikipedia content appears as a top organic result in countless searches, especially for queries about people, places or things, because Wikipedia articles provide comprehensive summaries of these topics and are thus highly relevant to user search intent — a technical term Google uses to describe the reason someone conducts a specific search. (Just think of how many times in the past week alone you’ve landed at Wikipedia after Googling a particular topic.)
And here’s the thing: users don’t even need to click over to the site to see its content, as Google includes descriptions from Wikipedia in the knowledge panels it displays at the top of search results. You can also find Wikipedia popping up in featured snippet responses and People Also Ask results.
Okay, you’re saying to yourself, what about voice search?
Well, Alexa, Siri and Google Voice often read directly from Wikipedia articles when answering questions. In fact, a Voicebot report found that when users were asking about brands, these programs relied on Wikipedia for 99% of correct answers. The report doesn’t specify this, but these “answers” are probably the same two-sentence brand descriptions that Google uses in its knowledge panels. This content is pulled from the first two sentences of the respective Wikipedia articles.
What about AI chatbots? That’s the future of our collective knowledge, after all. Users won’t even need to search the web, ChatGPT will just have the answer!
Well, here’s where it gets really interesting.
A journal article from the ChatGPT engineering team confirmed that the chatbot was trained on Wikipedia, with the encyclopedia likely helping the program learn patterns of language related to particular people, places and things. So when you ask ChatGPT about a brand or prominent individual, there’s a good chance that at least some of the information it provides in response will come from Wikipedia. Google’s Bard AI, meanwhile, cites the encyclopedia directly in its responses.
In short, no matter where you go to search for information, you’re eventually going to get content from Wikipedia. This is especially true when topics — like, say, your brand or organization — are gaining exposure in the news.
A 2018 study by the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent organization, found that media coverage of particular topics was the second-largest driver of traffic to the site. This data probably mirrors your own anecdotal experience: When you want to learn more about something you heard in the news, you skip the press releases, company website and social accounts and head directly to Wikipedia.
OceanGate is a perfect example of this. A Wikipedia article for the deep-sea research and tourism company was created in 2015. The entry would have been a top branded-search result, but the page still received low page views as few people had any reason to search for the company. In fact, in 2023, the article accumulated a whopping zero views…. until June 20, when 80 readers suddenly showed up. A few days later that number was up to half a million.
OceanGate was, of course, in the middle of a tragic news cycle following the loss of the Titan submersible and its five passengers somewhere above the Titanic wreckage. Page viewers likely included not only cable news fans second screening with their phones, but also journalists scrambling to research the company. Wikipedia editors, meanwhile, frantically added details to the article as revelations continued to emerge.
During that period, anyone who wanted to know more about OceanGate was visiting the Wikipedia entry.
So what does this all mean for public relations?
Wikipedia’s impact on reputation can’t be overstated, and brands should have a plan for engaging with the site. Having a well-written and accurate Wikipedia page can enhance an organization’s credibility and reputation. Conversely, having a short article filled with outdated information can create perception problems, especially for companies that have rebranded or altered their services or business model.
However, be aware that Wikipedia has strict guidelines about neutrality, verifiability, and conflicts of interest. For example, when you have a conflict of interest with a topic you should never directly edit the article. Instead, you must disclose your connection to the topic and make a request on the topic’s Talk Page, which volunteer editors with no connection to the topic can review. These uninvolved editors should be the ones to implement suggested edits, never a brand or PR firm attached to the topic.
PR professionals must adhere to these guidelines when contributing to or creating Wikipedia content. Attempts to manipulate or excessively promote an organization can lead to the removal of content and editor animosity towards the brand or organization — or even worse, the generation of critical news coverage, as we’ve seen in the past with politicians and prominent brands who tried to edit their own pages.