We’ve had lots of debate in this organisation (and I’m sure it happens in every organisation as they explore the online channel) about opening up our website and its content for users to comment on or adapt.

This has focused on specific areas such as discussion forums or the more general ideas of making our pages commentable or accepting user-generated content. There are pros and cons whichever path is chosen and careful consideration of resourcing, moderating but not censoring and weighing up what this feature or option would add in terms of user experience are all part of the decision.

One of the considerations is around opening up your online space in this way means that a visitor may write negative things about your organisation. Sure, if they write something defamatory or libelous then there are clear ways to deal with that. But what about accepting that they might make fair comment about one of your services or the organisation as a whole – you just might not like what they say very much?

The well argued reasoning here is that they are probably already saying those things because the conversation is happening in the online space whether organisations choose to hear or take part. But, whether the choice was wise or not, there has been a choice until now.

Guess what? Google just changed that. Now anyone can share their thoughts on your organisation and online content, alongside your web page, through Sidewiki – the newest addition to the Google toolbar. It’s actually less of a wiki and more of a universally applied comments system – people can share their thoughts and knowledge by adding a comment into the Sidiwiki bar hanging down the left of the page (well, they can if they have the Google toolbar installed in Firefox of Internet Explorer).

The benefit is, say Google, that everyone can now easily add their insight or helpful information to a page. And if everyone takes on the Do No Evil motto Google propose then isn’t that a massive and marvelous step forward in making the Internets a creative and equal utopia?

However, this could also be a flawed product. My heart beats faster at the possibility of an open internet where we are all in it for the greater good but I’ve got some reservations:

  • Google control the content in Sidewiki. You can claim your position of webmaster of a site with Google and then be able to have a sticky post which always appears at the top of the bar. However, while Google are happy to have inappropriate comments flagged with them for investigation and possible removal there is currently hazy guidance from them on what is inappropriate and how long they’ll take to decide whether to remove.
  • There is no way (that I can find) for a webmaster to be alerted to new comments being posted against their content. So, even if Google’s ownership of the comments forces organisations to accept people may have negative feedback for them it doesn’t allow them to find those comments or manage their response (and reputation) easily.
  • Spammers. The fly in Google’s ointment. A way they can post their stuff onto any web page anywhere with no immediate removal? Thank goodness they aren’t the sort of people to exploit a situation like that. *sigh*

So, worst case you could end up with spam sitting side by side with your web content, negative feedback or enquiries that you don’t realise are there to deal with and the control of the whole thing is with someone else. Best case may be people write lots of nice things about you or what they are writing genuinely enhances the visitor experience to your site.

Reality, for now, is probably that no-one will write much of anything or if they do, not many will see it, because not oh so many people have the Google toolbar, less of them know what Sidewiki is and as the spammers start to party fewer people with see it as enhancing web content.

The theory of universal comments could have good use in internal communications (as @jonnop and I discussed on Twitter today) as a way of building collective knowledge (with the spammers locked out) but in the wider web the potential for damage and the removal of control from website owners is concerning.

Google aren’t the first to take a shot at this so maybe they will just be the latest in line to try out an idea that is great in theory but may not be quite there in practice. Perhaps there will be some more useful webmaster controls in the API as it is developed or maybe it will start to force a change and organisations will need to realise that if someone has something bad to say about them they need to deal with that underlying issue rather than concentrating their efforts on stopping other people from seeing the feedback.

You can read more about what Google thinks of Sidewiki on their blog.

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