27 August 2014

So who's editing the SNHU Wikipedia page?

It started with a fun and entirely unverified fact overheard at a bar: SNHU spends between $50 and $75 million on marketing and advertising each year. Which was not all that surprising, even if you're at the type of establishment where such statements tend to get exaggerated. After all, SNHU is run like a for-profit. Why wouldn't it spend advertising dollars like a for-profit?

Need an example to support the dollar amount? Well, SNHU spends $20 million on TV ads, at least one of which pretty much crossed an ethical line when it "borrowed" someone else's idea. If SNHU is willing to spend on TV ads, imagine how much they spend on SEM, SEO, online display, traditional billboard placement, and the like.

So first the fact, then the shoulder shrug, and finally a question in light of the for-profit model: what could you do with the other $30 to $45 million?

One of the greatest untapped resources in higher education marketing is Wikipedia. It's usually the #2 ranked search result for branded keywords, which is pretty spectacular Internet real estate. It's seen as neutral, even though its neutrality is a bit circumspect as a concept. It has a feel of authority, too, because it is so large and so comprehensive.

And most importantly: anyone can edit it.

BP edited theirs. A Texas firm made a business of it. A PR firm in the lobbying industry did it for hundreds of its clients. The history of businesses editing their Wikipedia pages is nearly a decade old.

Now, I know what you're thinking, and the answer is no. You should not edit your institution's Wikipedia page. It's a PR debacle waiting to happen, and you'll look incompetent and dastardly when the Wikipedia community figures it out. After several years of bad press, top PR agencies just released their own ethical guidelines when in comes to astroturfing, sockpuppeting, and meatpuppeting on Wikipedia. Besides, editing your own page is against the terms of service. (If you want changes made to your institution's Wikipedia page, ask the community to make the changes via the article's "Talk" page.)

Most institutions' Wikipedia pages went through a period of rapid page growth and editing in the mid 2000s to late 2000s as Wikipedia grew in popularity. This applied to nearly all institutions, including for-profits such as University of Phoenix (graph #1), large publics such as University of Michigan (Graph #2), elite privates like Harvard University (Graph #3), community colleges like Tacoma Community College (Graph #4), and even regional comprehensives like Eastern Kentucky University (Graph #5). In recent years, editing history has declined in line with Wikipedia's overall editing decline.

History of Wikipedia edits by year for University of Phoenix

History of Wikipedia edits by year for University of Michigan

History of Wikipedia edits by year for Harvard University

History of Wikipedia edits by year for Tacoma Community College

History of Wikipedia edits by year for Eastern Kentucky University

Which is why SNHU is so interesting.

Its Wikipedia page doesn't follow the pattern of most institutions. First, there's a huge uptick in edits beginning 2013 which continues into 2014. If the pace of edits continues, 2013 and 2014 will be the biggest editing years in the SNHU page's history. Which makes sense, perhaps: SNHU is growing rapidly and received some notable press the last few years, so why wouldn't it receive more Wikipedia attention?

Unfortunately, most of that positive press came in 2012, which is probably when we should expect to see the edits. That didn't happen.

Which is where a second point comes in: more than 80% of the edits made in the last two years have been made anonymously. That percentage appears insanely high, especially over a multi-year period. Most institutions are at 40% or lower.

Most interestingly: nearly 20% of the text on the page was written by an anonymous user from Manchester, New Hampshire (which is SNHU's hometown), who edits almost nothing except the SNHU page. A second anonymous user from Brooklyn, NY, is the page's second largest editor responsible for just over 10% of the page's content. That user has never edited another Wikipedia article.

Neither user had ever edited the page before 2013. Both accounts began making edits to the SNHU within three hours of each other.

It's not uncommon for pages to have "heavy" users, but that's almost always someone who has watched and edited the page for years. Oftentimes it's the person who created the page. Usually it's a known user, not an anonymous IP. MIT's Wikipedia page is a great example: an active alum who's also a professor of Wikipedia (really) is heavily involved in that page's history. Their involvement with the page might be biased, but it makes sense and is transparent and accountable.

Which is why SNHU's editing history is so intriguing, and why it merited a blog.

Perhaps the new anonymous users are just alumni, like the Wikipedia user who originally created the SNHU page. Or maybe they're current students. Or a staff member who took an interest in their free time. Several weeks ago, I reached out to the anonymous Wikipedians who have been making the changes, but I've yet to receive a response.

It's not safe to assume that SNHU is paying someone to edit the page. I haven't reached out to anyone at the university, so this blog isn't any type of accusation. It's not even journalism. It's just a blog.

That said, it is safe to say that SNHU's Wikipedia page activity is definitely abnormal, and it's fair to ask why, even if that question is asked in a hobby blog maintained by someone whose institution has never cross-apped with SNHU.


Lydia Anthony said...

I had no idea it was against policy for a college to edit their own Wikipedia article! After all, who knows the facts better than the school itself? But I guess it makes sense. Grr.

Matt said...

Second question, who edits the additional pages in other languages? At my school, we had 17 different Wikipedia pages, all original and started in different languages. In an era of global competition for students, those pages also win Google, or Baidu searches.