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Wikis can be wonderful tools for collaboration, but they falter with the growth of your product content. 

 

Wikis: why do people still use them? As with all tools, there’s a list of pros and cons. In this article, we’ll explore those pros, cons, the in-betweens, and the alternatives. But, first, let’s review a basic definition of what a wiki is. 

Wikis are open-source web pages that allow collaborative content editing by the users associated with them.

Now we can jump into a civilized discussion about why they don’t work for product documentation. 

 

When Do Wikis Work?  

Sike! We’re starting with what they’re good for. 

Spoiler alert, just because they’re not great for product documentation doesn’t mean they’re useless. Here are a few situations in which wikis are a great option: 

    • Socially enabled content: If you’re looking for a user-oriented experience that encourages discussion, forums, comments, ratings, etc. around your content, wikis are great. 
    • Lightweight authoring tools: Wikis allow casual authors to contribute to your body of content, be they end-users or SMEs outside of your organization’s formal information development processes. 
    • Dynamic content delivery: Because a wiki is web-based, content contribution can populate immediately and can be accessed with reasonably complex semantic internal search capabilities. 
    • Analytics and web search: Wikis come with their own suite of analytics tools that show insights on content relevance, post popularity, traffic, etc. All of this information makes for better web exposure of an organization’s documentation. 

 

When Do Wikis Not Work? 

Authoring content directly in a wiki is fast but problematic. Especially as your library of content grows and requires more careful attention.

    • Converting existing content: Converting your existing body of product documentation from wiki format to anything else is rife with issues. Breaking down large documents into smaller pieces becomes a formidable challenge, and littler technical details like navigational aids (TOCs, anchor text, etc.), images, complex tables, hyperlinks, and metadata structure in the content risks getting lost in translation. 
    • Multichannel publishing: Wikis were built for collaborative web publishing to… themselves. Publishing your content to other places like chatbots, mobile, etc. is difficult, ostensibly trapping your content in the wiki itself.
    • Translation and localization: Need to manage your content in more than one language? Good luck doing that in a wiki. 
    • Information architecture and content management: Here’s the biggest downfall, in my opinion. When you’re writing product documentation, you want your organization to maintain authority. With wikis, it’s difficult to enforce information management policies. There are horror stories of corporate wikis going viral for all the wrong reasons. These once-solid knowledge bases devolve into thickets of redundant, obsolete, and trivial content (ROT). You don’t want ROT in your product content. 

 

Bringing It Back Together

As your product content grows, wikis hold you back. 

Scaling your product content is a mark of organizational maturity and it builds user trust. Where wikis can be useful tools for smaller-scale content management and projects, they fail to provide the foundation that a burgeoning library of content needs to remain trustworthy and authoritative.

Think of your product documentation having a community of contributors — industry experts, internal employees, super-users, etc. — that grows with the popularity of your product. As the number of contributors increases, so must the diligence of your content contribution management. Scaling these efforts in a wiki would take an exponential amount of effort, leaving room for error that would ultimately impact the credibility of your documentation and your user base. 

Contributors will likely not purposely mar your documentation, but most content ROT is unintentional anyway. Especially when technical and operational systems aren’t strong enough to bear the burden of maintaining the validity of expanding product content at scale.

Editorial workflows, content reuse, and granular version control are things that wikis aren’t capable of. These capabilities help ensure that your content is the dependable product source material that you and your users need it to be. 

 

What Now? 

Authoring, managing, and publishing content from a single source system like easyDITA can remove the risk of ROT, among other concerns raised by wikis.

Paired with an accountable workflow that provides checks and balances on your content, your organization’s content operations are poised to develop, maintain, and scale content from a system that can bear its weight with ease.

For more about documentation standards, we’ve developed a side-by-side comparison that will help guide you toward what’s most suitable for your organization’s documentation needs. You can check it out here: What is the Best Standard for Documentation?

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Tim Ludwig
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