Hiring a Wikipedia Consultant?

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White Hat Vs. Black Hat Wikipedia Consultants and How to Tell the Difference.

Wikipedia consultants are not all alike. Only a handful of “white hats” go out of their way to strictly follow Wikipedia policy for paid editors, especially mandatory disclosure of conflict of interest (COI) and submitting proposed edits for review by independent Wikipedia editors prior to publication. Still fewer also have the experience necessary to be successful within these strictures. 

By contrast, most Wikipedia consultants operate as “black hats,” often unbeknownst to their clients. These freelancers and agencies devote themselves to avoiding detection by posing as volunteer editors in order to avoid the scrutiny of the thousands of independent editors who patrol Wikipedia looking for the tell-tale signs of undisclosed COI editing. Anyone who cheats like this can achieve some short-term success (in days, weeks or sometimes months) but only by risking serious long-term Wikipedia damage to their clients. This might include page deletions, content being stripped out, warning flags, blocked accounts and the creation of a group of hostile editors who will follow and attack the page for years.

The best white hat Wikipedia editors have many years of experience working as paid Wikipedia consultants (and not just as volunteer editors). Experience matters here. The process of working as a paid consultant on Wikipedia is dramatically different than the process of working as a Wikipedia volunteer. The mandatory disclosure of conflict of interest means every submission will be closely scrutinized for adherence to a massive body of Wikipedia policy. Wikipedia volunteers usually only face this type of scrutiny occasionally.

A “white hat” consulting firm, like WhiteHatWiki, must deal with close editor scrutiny with every single client proposal. After facing this challenge many hundreds of times, we are keenly aware of the written and unwritten best practices the volunteer reviewing editors demand.

When you have a conflict of interest, Wikipedia requires proposed edits and new pages be submitted for review by independent editors prior to publication. Most of effective practices within this process are unwritten. They also quickly evolve. A good professional Wikipedia editor should be able to talk you through these processes in great detail and their strategy for successfully navigating issues like multi-month queues for independent review.

Why cheat when there are viable paths available to help clients and stay within policy? Simple. It is easier, faster and cheaper for the consultant. Wikipedia takes years to master. A typical freelancer advertising themselves as a Wikipedia writer for hire has very little Wikipedia experience. In fact, you might be communicating with an agency whose expertise is in online marketing, not Wikipedia. After they land a client, they pass the assignment off to freelance writer being paid a few bucks an hour, with barely any training.

How do “black hats” get away with this? They exploit two of Wikipedia‘s defining features to their benefit. First, Wikipedia does not require that a user provide any information about their identity. Second, the Wikipedia platform only advises users with a conflict of interest not to directly edit articles about their identity. But the platform doesn’t block users from being able to edit Wikipedia, even in a manner that blatantly violates policy.

For 21 years now, it has been Wikipedia’s practice to typically review and content only after it has been published. And because of the large volume of content being published- compared to the relatively modest number of volunteers – post- publication reviews can take weeks. months or even years. The Wikipedia review process is decentralized and messy. Editors follow their personal interests in choosing what to do and are not obliged to work in chronological order.

The black hats take advantage of this loosely-organized chaotic system to pose as volunteers.  Their business model is to evade recognition just long enough to get paid.

White hats know how to jump through the Wikipedia hoops and backflips of pre-publication review for the benefit of their clients first and foremost.

How Do You Hire A “White Hat” Wikipedia Consultant?

1. Look for a “white hat” agency that abides by and understands the complexities of Wikipedia policies.

On the surface, Wikipedia seems like a very simple platform to most everyday users: information about a given topic is presented in individual encyclopedia articles, with links provided to the external sources that are (at least in theory) the basis for what each article says. If a user wants to explore deeper into the topic, they can click internal or external links.

Many users are only dimly or not at all aware that most Wikipedia articles can be edited by (almost) anyone, anywhere anytime; even fewer know that the platform has an enormous body of policies and best practices governing content and language, including mandatory conflict of interest disclosure and review of content prior to publication in cases of COI.

A paid Wikipedia editor should be able to give you an overview of at least a few of the major policies, including conflict of interest, editing, reliable sources, verification, and neutral point of view. It’s also always a good idea to ask a potential Wiki consultant for their take on the Wikipedia policy concerning “promotional” content. Try quizzing your potential consultant on any of these policies, then check up if what they say is consistent with the official policy found on Wikipedia.

A conversation with a skilled Wikipedia consultant should leave you impressed with their mastery of policy, and perhaps a little intimidated that the rulebook is a lot thicker than you imagined.

When it comes to your specific issue, a very skilled Wikipedia consultant should be able to give you their initial impressions as to how it might play out on Wikipedia, and which specific Wikipedia policies are involved. Yes, this evaluation might change with more research and a deeper dive into the relevant policies. But more often than not, an initial evaluation will prove to be mostly accurate.

A white hat Wikipedia consultant will freely give you an honest assessment of how an issue will play out on Wikipedia. While sometimes it’s a black and white matter, often there is enough gray that there is a range of possible outcomes. A skilled Wikipedia consultant should be able to tell you through multiple possibilities.

Why does knowledge of Wikipedia policies matter?

The truth is that an “average” user will probably never need to know or engage with Wikipedia’s policies, especially if they’re just reading articles. The same cannot be said, however, for a paid editor who wants to make updates to articles; to get inaccurate or slanted content removed from them; or trying to get a new page published.

Absent intensive study over a period of years, it’s easy to make mistakes that can have unintended but potentially substantial consequences. These might range from a warning affixed to the top of an article, to engendering hostility from other editors that result in a page being shredded or even deleted, to a user account being banned. Wikipedia is not a friendly place for editors who other Wikipedia editors believe are trying to do an end run around policies. On the other hand, if you engage with Wikipedia editors backed by thorough research and intelligent policy arguments, you’ll engender cooperation and healthy participation.

“White hat” vs. “Black hat” agencies

For Wikipedia practitioners who do understand these rules and best practices, the question of how to approach Wikipedia consulting is vital. There are agencies that choose to follow the rules and work within the system to get results (aka, “white hat” agencies”), and ones which choose to knowingly break the policies (aka “black hat” agencies).

It’s much easier for a service provider to go the “black hat” route since it achieves results more quickly. And they don’t need to know the rules since no one is going to be checking their work prior to publication. They’re objective is to get paid before they get caught. If they have the long-term best interest of their clients in mind, they would not be following this path.

“White hat” agencies are better for their clients in the long run because the changes they are able to help get made are likely to stick for the long term. If your consultant is advising you correctly, you will be able to read a transparent discussion about the proposal to update, alter, or create a Wikipedia page. You won’t have to guess if they’ve done a good job that independent editors approve of.

2. Check for Staff Bios on the Consultancy Website. Or Ask for Wikipedia User Names.

A high-quality Wikipedia consultant ill be transparent about who is on its staff and what each staff member’s qualifications are. Why does this matter? Because you should always know who will be involved in your project and what skills and experience they are bringing into the job. This is especially true if you’re hiring a consultant to deal with a complicated problem like confronting Wikipedia trolls or get misinformation removed from an article – entrusting such a delicate task to someone without the appropriate qualifications creates a huge risk that their work could backfire and make matters even worse.

Look for a Wikipedia consultancy with staff who are high-level experts in more than just Wikipedia. Among the most talented Wikipedia consultants are former academics, who love deep research, and lawyers, who enjoy policy. Seasoned investigative journalists with extensive Wikipedia training can also make a consultants, These disciplines also require a refined sense of presenting facts in a neutral manner. WhiteHatWiki’s staff includes a lawyer, PhDs and investigative journalists.

By contrast, Wikipedia consultants whose only background is in PR, marketing or low-level journalism tend to have many more problems succeeding as paid consultants. Individuals with this type of background are often trained to insert promotional messages into even the most innocuous information.

A highly competent researcher could be the difference between success and failure on Wikipedia. Quality sources are very often the determining factor. Yet most Wikipedia editors never get past relying entirely on Google search for their research.

The staff at top Wikipedia consultancies will typically have advanced degrees that has required them to do in-depth research with academic databases like ProQuest and EBSCO. Google is not enough to do thorough research on most topics. And not every source needs to be free and online to be used on Wikipedia. Many books, academic journals, and high-quality content can’t be fully accessed without paid subscriptions.

If you want to cheerfully check out a consultant’s Wikipedia skills, ask them for their Wikipedia username and look up their contribution history. Everything they’ve ever edited or proposed on Wikipedia will appear in complete detail on their user contribution page. In fact, if you received a solicitation from a Wikipedia service provider, it’s mandatory that they provide you with this information as part of the solicitation. You should automatically exclude any consultant who contacts you without your permission and has not included their Wikipedia user name in the correspondence.

3. Look for Extensive FAQs or Blog Posts

When you’re looking for a Wikipedia consultant, you want to find one that has an extensive FAQ or blog posts on their website. Why is this something to look for? Not only will FAQs tell you more about what they do (and won’t do) to help clients, but it should also indicate how knowledgeable they are about Wikipedia. The more an agency knows about the platform, the more likely it is that they can effectively resolve complex or contentious situations for their clients.

A top Wikipedia agency monitors how Wikipedia is changing and will adapt its methods to keep pace with the platform’s evolution. Wikipedia’s policies are constantly evolving, as are best practices.

Ask an experienced Wikipedia editor about major changes to policy that have affected how they work, and they should have many examples.

How Do You Avoid Red Flags When Hiring A Wikipedia Consultant?

1. Avoid “black hat” Wikipedia consultants who don’t follow Wikipedia policy

As noted above, “black hat” agencies might seem like a good idea at first, but in the end, they often create more problems than they solve for a client. Hundreds of Wikipedia editors patrol articles looking for signs of “undisclosed conflict of interest” editing, a broad category that includes those who are paid by a client to edit pages but do not acknowledge they are paid editors on Wikipedia. (For more on the pitfalls of trying to do undisclosed COI editing on Wikipedia, see our piece on that here.)

2. The consultant guarantees quick results

An unavoidable fact of life on Wikipedia is that when you propose updates or new content the right way, most requests typically take some time. (There are a small number of exceptions, such as libel or accusations of crimes). A proposal to change an existing article to a few weeks to a few months before it finds its way to the top of the queue. So if you come across an agency that guarantees they will get a result within days, unless the task is removing libel or vandalism, they’re very likely planning on cheating. And cheating editors almost always eventually get caught, devastating the work they’ve done for all their clients with the same user accounts.

3. The consultant claims a 100% success rate

If an agency claims that they always get a successful resolution for their clients, they’re just not being honest. Or it could be that they engage in sophisticated cheating and think they’ll never get caught. But eventually, they’ll be discovered and their complete success will become complete failure.

In most scenarios, Wikipedia best practices allows WhiteHatWiki to forecast the likely resolution of a proposed edit or new page. Our assessments are typically very accurate, even with decentralized decision making. But certain swaths of Wikipedia policy leave significant room for interpretation. An example is the policy against promotionalism. Editors sometimes interpret the policy very differently. The same fact scenario might be decided differently on different pages at different times. Wikipedia does not have a formal policy of precedents that guarantees consistency between pages. In cases where we think there is room for interpretation, we will give you an assessment of the likelihood of a proposal being accepted.

That said, there are many client situations where the resolution is all but certain with enough persistence. For example, biased content written in the voice of Wikipedia as though it’s true will eventually be removed if the various Wikipedia appeals processes are followed through to the end. But it requires diligent work and patience.

Similarly, with enough research, persuasive policy arguments, and patience, we always have success removing warning flags atop articles. These warning flags point out policy problems with an article, and policy problems can always be solved (even if it means removing chunks of unverified or biased content).

4. The Wikipedia consultant lacks transparency about staff

As noted above, white hat agencies are transparent about who their employees are because they want clients to feel confident about their qualifications. They’ll tell you the real names of the consultants. They’ll show up for video chats. The same cannot always be said of many black hat agencies. Some use fake names or appropriate the identities of real people. Or they make some other excuse why you can’t speak to the Wikipedia consultant who will be doing the actual work.

We recommend that you always have a video chat with any vendor you plan on hiring and look up the LinkedIn profile of the consultant you’ll be working with to make sure their face matches their LinkedIn page. You should be speaking with the actual person who will do the work, and not just the sales representative. Don’t hire someone who only makes themselves available over text chat or email.

You should also be able to speak and email to the consultant without the layer of a sales person. An agency who won’t let you speak to the staff member doing the work is often hiring freelancers with limited Wikiipedia experience to do the work. Typically, these agencies hire low-cost freelance writers who are given very little Wikipedia training. They very well might write a draft or a proposal that makes you happy in the short term because they’ll follow your wish list and make you or your company sound great.

But Wikipedia policy is vastly too complicated for a client to successfully guess at what’s going to be approved and stick on the page for the long term. The consultant shouldn’t just be saying to everything you request. Our job is to prevent clients from making mistakes. That means any client wishlist is usually going to need to be modified in order to be consistent with Wikipedia policy.

5. Watch out for Wikipedia scammers!

There’s a special subcategory of black-hat agencies that are especially bad for clients, and are arguably scammers. It’s an unfortunate reality that within the Wikipedia consultancy industry there are some fly-by-night operations that pose as legit Wikipedia consulting firms to wring money out of unsuspecting clients, who often end up worse off than they started.

How Can A Wikipedia Consultant Be A Scam If They Get Results?

As noted above, the Wikipedia agency landscape is full of consultants who promise to get quick and complete results for their clients for a low price. Scammers will make especially promising claims on their websites and in their sales pitches.

One of the most common misconceptions that victims of unscrupulous Wikipedia agencies fall prey to revolves around how these agencies choose to define “success”. A reputable agency is going to define success in terms of helping clients get changes implemented that last over the long-term, not just for a few days or weeks. The scammers use dummy accounts to directly edit pages, posing as volunteers. That’s why many of these outfits offer “guarantees” for their work, which on the surface might sound like the opposite of a scam. But in fact, if you know how Wikipedia operates, it quickly becomes apparent that the promises these agencies make are simply not realistic.

For the most part, change happens slowly on Wikipedia – you have to wait for independent reviewers to evaluate proposals and they might take several weeks or longer. By contrast, direct edits are not always removed immediately – it can take days, weeks, or even longer for policy violations to be corrected and improper content to be removed. That lag time is what scammers make use of: they know that direct edits they make, posing as volunteers, won’t last over the long-term, but there’s a reasonable chance that the edits will stick around long enough for them to get paid, That’s why black hat agencies can offer a guarantee for their services: while they sometimes get caught right away, often direct edits might be reverted after 30 days, when it’s too late to cancel a credit card payment.

Why doesn’t Wikipedia ban these scammers? They do, by the thousands. But the scammers come right back with new phony accounts or new freelancers yet to have their home IP addresses banned.

While the scammers move on – often abandoning even their websites and starting new ones to hide their tracks, the client is left with a page adorned with warning flags (or deleted), with added content removed plus even more to discourage further rule breaking, and annoyed editors who begin to follow the page closely, reversing or rejecting even sensible edits.

When these clients finally make their way to us, to get even legitimate approved is far more difficult, expensive and time consuming then if they had just been done the right way to begin with.

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