A beginner’s guide to using Wikipedia

Using Wikipedia is surprisingly easy, but editing the world’s biggest online encyclopaedia is much more complex.

Tuesday, 21 November, 2023

In the pre-internet days, looking something up generally involved a dictionary, the Encyclopaedia Britannica or a trip to the library.

Today, we have Wikipedia at our fingertips.

If you’re not familiar with this extraordinary online resource, it’s worth understanding how it has developed, what it offers and why it’s (mostly) trustworthy these days.

It’s also important to know how using Wikipedia to update entries can share your own expertise or insights with the world – providing you can authenticate them…

That’s wiki-ed

A wiki is a database or website developed collaboratively by its users, rather than by a business or public body.

Wikipedia’s name also incorporates the Latin word -pedia, a suffix relating to learning.

It debuted in January 2001, offering an online alternative to traditional curated encyclopaedias such as Microsoft Encarta.

Anyone could create an entry using Wikipedia’s content editing interface, and anyone could amend existing entries, which mushroomed as word spread about this free online resource.

However, in its early days, Wikipedia was regularly compromised by false information being maliciously published, leading to a reputation for untrustworthy content.

This was swiftly addressed by a combination of effective moderation, user registration and the requirement for assertions to be validated with a hyperlink to online source material.

Although early versions of Wikipedia included news stories, topicality was quickly dropped in favour of content which wouldn’t date as quickly – most notably articles and profiles.

By 2006, the one millionth article (about a Glasgow train station) had been published on the English version of Wikipedia, which had been joined by foreign-language versions as well.

At the time of writing, there are 6,723,267 pages in the English Wikipedia alone, with the total number of pages in all languages standing at just over 59 million.

Any registered user can make amendments to content at any time. However, a team of moderators will delete unsubstantiated statements, while users may flag dubious content.

Navigating for beginners

Many of us have searched for something online, found a link to a Wikipedia page and then moved on.

However, this is barely scratching the surface of a tremendous online resource.

The first thing to note is the diversity of languages, from the Frafra language spoken in northern Ghana to the Pitcairn Islands’ unique English/Tahitian dialect.

The next thing to note is the View Source option, though popular pages restrict editing this to established regular users, preventing vandalism by ill-intentioned visitors.

The average Wikipedia page has had 19 revisions. Clicking View History showcases how selected revisions compare – and who made those revisions.

Any statements requiring validation will have a superscript number after it. Clicking it takes you to the bottom of the page, revealing the hyperlink to the source information.

Conversely, you’re able to view the pages that link to a specific Wikipedia page by going to Tools > What Links Here, allowing you to explore related topics in greater detail.

If you want to link to a page, Wikipedia offers shortened URLs in the style of bit.ly. Every link starts https://w.wiki/, followed by a few alphanumeric characters.

For more formal attribution, you can also download pages as Adobe PDFs, or display a printable version in any web browser.

Because any content on Wikipedia is exempt from copyright, freely licensed images can be reproduced anywhere you like.

However, plagiarising third-party content on Wikipedia itself is strictly forbidden.

Using Wikipedia to change content

If you spot an error on a Wikipedia page, or identify the absence of relevant content, adding it is relatively straightforward if you’ve used content management systems before.

You’ll see the word [edit] beside each sub-heading. Clicking this brings up a new window written in a form of HTML, using tags like for citing references, and hyperlinks in {{ }} brackets.

If you’ve never done any programming, you need to pay close attention to the square and curly brackets which appear in the text editor window.

Any modifications will be permanently logged under your user profile, but adding a brief summary of what you’ve done (and why) helps to get edits past the watching admins.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!