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5 Cold Takes on the North Face Wikipedia Debacle

Remember when the North Face and Leo Burnett Tailor Made did a dumb thing and bragged about it?

For the last several months, I’ve been thinking about one of the funniest and most bizarre SEO blunders that a major brand has made. I’m referring, of course, to North Face’s hilarious and disastrous Wikipedia fuckup. 

This is the campaign that AdAge—in a fawning, hapless article, which also happened to be the only piece of even relatively positive press the campaign received—praised with the headline “THE NORTH FACE USED WIKIPEDIA TO CLIMB TO THE TOP OF GOOGLE SEARCH RESULTS”.

Other articles were more along the lines of:

You might be wondering, based on the articles quoted above, why I think one more is needed. Why write more on this tired subject? Why not let it rest?

Well, one thing that troubles me in this situation is that—four months later—there still hasn’t been a well-written article that addresses the situation from the perspective of someone who works professionally in search engine optimization and knows the lay of the Wikipedia land.

Which is why I wrote this article you’re currently reading. 

This is from a real video made by North Face and Leo Burnett. They thought they were the first ones to notice this. And the first ones to do something about it. Whoops.

This is from a real video made by North Face and Leo Burnett. They thought they were the first ones to notice this. And the first ones to do something about it. Whoops.

North Face and Leo Burnett did not “hack” Wikipedia

This is a simple starting point. Wikipedia can be edited by anyone. You don’t even need to be logged in. To edit it is not to “hack” it.

There are exceptions, of course…

There are exceptions, of course…

To edit Wikipedia is simply to edit it. When an edit is inappropriate, inaccurate, self-promoting or otherwise problematic, it’s still not a “hack”. It’s vandalism.

And yes, some pages are protected from vandalism. Like North Face’s… because after this mistake, people realized how fun it was to vandalize their page.

Many agencies have no business doing SEO

I genuinely believe that everyone involved in this stunt should have lost their jobs. They failed to do even the most basic research about what SEO is, how Wikipedia works, and what’s involved in optimizing for search engines.

And it’s not a surprise. Most agencies claiming digital expertise know nothing about digital.

As I summed this up in a tweet back in May:


I say this as someone who worked at the largest advertising agency in Minneapolis… as its sole SEO strategist. I am now at a much smaller agency, where there are literally 1000% more SEO specialists and strategists than where I worked before.

Unfortunately, SEO and many other aspects of digital marketing are treated like easy disciplines by bandwagon agencies. Misunderstood across the “traditional” advertising landscape. Which brings us to…

AdAge has no business writing about SEO

AdAge’s purpose appears to be nothing more than a place for agencies to promote themselves. In the case of #NorthFaceGate, they proved that not only are they shameless about being a mouthpiece for agencies, but they’re also incompetent. To paraphrase an old expression, “incompetency and corruption are not mutually exclusive.”

Let’s read how AdAge initially described this campaign, in its opening paragraph:

When you first start planning a big trip, step one will likely happen at the Google search bar. Step two might be clicking onto the images of your target destination. The North Face, in a campaign with agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made, took advantage of this consumer behavior to keep its name top of mind with travelers considering an adventure sports excursion.


If one is going to do a campaign around the “consumer behavior” that “happen[s] at the Google search bar”, one should approach this through search engine optimization, Google Ads, or another such approach. One should hire search professionals. One should hire a professional digital agency. And AdAge should admit its own incompetence in this territory and retreat from further bumbling faux journalism.

Wikipedia editors can be a bit precious

I do think we need to address one aspect of this: Wikipedia is not sacred. Unfortunately, I think that aspect of this narrative was lost in all the hand-wringing over precious Wikipedia. As The New York Times summed it up, “North Face Edited Wikipedia’s Photos. Wikipedia Wasn’t Happy.”

In this case, NYT avoided necessarily siding with Wikipedia as resolutely as most of the other headlines and articles on this subject. I’m okay with that. Wikipedia is not a holy land. A lot of it is incomprehensible junk.

My concern around all of this is the disrespect, corruption, and incompetence displayed by arrogant bandwagon advertisers taking their clients’ money while failing to produce. Leo Burnett obviously has no business doing SEO. It was wrong of them to take North Face’s money.

Transparency is the better option

If you’re manipulating search engines, admit it. If you’re doing SEO, admit it. And if you don’t know how to do something, don’t pretend you do and don’t take your client’s money.

And definitely don’t ask AdAge to write an article about you.

Finally, it’s worth remembering what’s at stake when one attempts to jump into a channel, discipline, or medium one does not understand. The North Face’s Wikipedia page now mentions their vandalism of Wikipedia.


And you can rest assured that paragraph won’t be removed from Wikipedia any time soon.

Enjoy the read? You might enjoy this take on Jonathan Franzen and SEO.