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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10 thoughts on “Say anything:Google’s Sidewiki

  1. Sidewiki has an API which provides feeds for comment authors and for each web page (maybe for any text selection, too. I’m not sure). http://code.google.com/apis/sidewiki/

    This way, webmasters can stay up-to-date with comments that are being left on each page. Ideally, Google will provide a simple Atom feed link rather than having to know about the API. It would be good to have such a feed for an entire domain as well as feeds for each page.

  2. Good post. I’m really torn between the potential offered by sidewiki and the opportunity for its abuse! Be interesting to see how Google develop it.

  3. agree. its scary. At first I thought it would be great to expose or argue that parts of some reports were wrong ie on some news sites that don’t allow comments, but quickly realised the danger in this form of commenting. Don’t know what to suggest… we shall just have to wait and see. The thought of having some nasty post-it on our community site doesn’t bear thinking about…
    yah, scary.

  4. As we’ve already discussed on Twitter today, there’s really the problem of site owners currently not knowing whether content was published or not. I believe people are going to adopt sidewiki quite soon … but I also think developers will make use of the api (that also might get richer with time).


  5. Thanks for your comments all.
    I’m torn between the potential and the potential for abuse too.
    Thanks for the info on the API Joss – will certainly take a closer look at this.
    Will be interesting to see whether Sidewiki does take hold and what impact that has on our sites and the web as a whole.

  6. What’s most interesting to me about SideWiki is the fact that comments track quotations across the web. So if I comment on a paragraph on one site, which is then quoted on another site, my SideWiki comment on the source site, appears alongside the quote on the second site. It has quite interesting implications for web-wide annotation and publishing. Google is able to identify an arbitrary selection of text wherever it is repeated on the web and display the same annotation next to it.

  7. Joss – that is interesting and pretty powerful. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how Sidewiki develops and settles into the landscape of the web (or maybe the web landscape is changing to accommodate these developments). I guess, for a while at least, eyes will be on Wave rather than Sidewiki though 😉

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