Today’s news that the foundation in charge of Wikipedia is investigating a series of suspicious articles reminded us of our usual refrain about the danger of restricting research to the internet.due diligence bad actors.jpg

When clients tell us they’ve checked someone out on the internet, haven’t found much and don’t expect we will either, we like to say: many useful sites on the internet are businesses, and commercial considerations have no place in shaping a rigorous investigation.

News from the Wall Street Journal’s Digits blog about the Wikipedia investigation is here. According to the report, hundreds of volunteer editor accounts at Wikipedia may have been used as “sockpuppets,” a term that denotes a fake name designed to fool supervisors at Wikipedia into thinking that commercially-motivated editing is really being done out of the goodness of someone’s heart.

Entire PR firms exist for this very purpose, it seems. The editors at Wikipedia have now banned 250 accounts, but more bad names could surface.

While there’s nothing wrong with commerce and making a buck, investigators need to know the motivations behind the sources they use to find facts. Since that’s difficult to do with Wikipedia, we would never dream of quoting it as an authoritative source on anything. Like a Google search, it can — in some cases — be a decent starting point, but that’s it.

We’ve said the same thing over and over about Google, especially here in Google is not a Substitute for Thinking. At least with Google, there is no pretense that the company is a non-profit endeavor to spread human knowledge.  Google is a business, complete with ads. Its ranking methodology is secret, and it is clear that it likes to decide what a “good” result is for you based on that secret – and profit-maximizing – algorithm.

If you’re on Google and your question would be answered by a site that generates no Google revenue and has ten hits a year, Google won’t think that’s a good result and may not show you the link on page one or even page 20 of your search. Google is not a disinterested research librarian.

And, neither are the sock puppets at Wikipedia.