Does the web need a SideWiki?
Google has quietly added a new feature to its Google toolbar which it calls SideWiki and describes as a meta-comments engine. It lets you make comments about a web page, and read the comments made by others. Is this an easy to use Web 2.0 style facility that lets us all communicate more easily, or does it have a downside for website owners?
Websites which allow visitors to leave comments on their pages for others to read are commonplace, although some of the Web 2.0 aficionados would have you believe it is a whole new paradigm for social interaction and a substitute for original content. Likewise, a website which allows its users to discuss other people's websites is also not a new idea, and the likes of StumbleUpon do that already. However, Google has extended this concept and built a commenting feature into its popular Google Toolbar and dubbed it SideWiki.
Users of the Google Toolbar (only available for Internet Explorer and Firefox) can now see a bar down the left hand side of web pages which can contain comments about the page. The comments are stored by Google on their own servers and, when you visit a page, the sidebar notifies Google of the page you are visiting and retrieves any comments made by any other Google Toolbar users about that page. It will include a voting system on comments so that good comments rise to the top of the sidebar and less interesting ones fall to the bottom. Other features include the ability to insert links to YouTube videos and copy portions of web pages into the Google Blogger service. Google says it is all designed to encourage visitors to make insightful comments about the page and share those comments with other users, add different perspective, and enable you to share useful tips as you browse, thus enriching the web experience.
If only that were true. As website owners we all spend a lot of time thinking about what information we want to present on our websites and making sure it is legal, balanced, honest and truthful. The last thing we want is for people who know nothing about our products to come along and put their own spin on our words. Anyone who has run any sort of forum or discussion area on the web will know just how many unjustified and disparaging comments are placed on those feedback pages. At least with forums we can control those comments, block users, and remove offensive remarks. With the Google SideWiki we won't have that control. Anyone will be able to add comments alongside our pages and we, as site owners, will be powerless to stop them. The data belongs to Google and is stored at Google. There is nothing we, as the site operator, can do to stop it.
Imagine that you are selling a product such as books. Would you really want people to be able to post comments such as "You can get this cheaper on Amazon"? Worse, imagine how you would feel if someone who you cannot identify posted "They gave me really bad customer service". If your website contains anything remotely political or contentious, would you really want it to be a free-for-all for people to put their opposing points of view? Would you want to provide a billboard for people who do not seek to communicate or discuss a viewpoint, only to use your website to push their propaganda, peddle their products or promote their porn sites? Would it add to people's appreciation of your work if someone posted his lonely heart plea against the most popular pages of your site? Remember, at this time Google does not seem to allow website owners to moderate the comments. You might be able to post rebuttals to some of these comments if you become aware of them, but not remove them, and how many of us will have the time to check each and every page or our websites each day for those comments?
You could ask how this is different from the recent swathe of products such as StumbleUpon, Digg or Delicious. The main difference is one of scale and immediacy. With those other products, the visitor has to actively seek out the comments but with SideWiki, users of Google's toolbar will have immediate access to them, and an easy method of posting comments too. Google's Toolbar is more widely used than those other products, and of course Google would like it to be ubiquitous. Experience tells me that the easier you make it to post comments on a web page, the more trivial and inappropriate those comments become.
It may be that this idea falls flat and no-one uses it, but if it does prove popular then no doubt Yahoo and Microsoft will both rush to implement a similar feature in their own tool bars, and of course that means that there will be not one but three sets of comments which need checking by site owners.
I am struggling to think of any benefit in this to the owners of typical business-based websites. I am disappointed that Google seems to have given so little thought to what site owners want and need and instead viewed our websites as yet another resource for Google to use, another way of collecting profiling data and possibly another canvas to sell advertising once it becomes well established. At present it seems there is no way to opt your site out of SideWiki, or even to see what SideWiki posters are saying about you unless you install the Google Toolbar and join the collective. If Google changes its stance on this and provides an opt-out mechanism, we will let you know. Meanwhile, if any of you use Google Toolbar and find SideWiki comments appearing alongside your pages, we would be interested to know whether you felt those comments improved or diminished your site.
The Google promotional video for SideWiki can be found on YouTube:
29th September 2009
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.