Wednesday’s unveiling of Google Sidewiki did something pretty eye-opening. It forced every company in the world with a website to get hip to social media and do it now.

Essentially, anyone who downloads a browser toolbar for Firefox or Internet Explorer, with one for Google’s Chrome soon to come, can add comments and notes to a sidebar expansion of any website. Even yours. Without your permission or even knowledge.

And remember what Google does best … serves up relevant advertising in search results. I would expect your competitors will have the opportunity to place their ads on your Sidewiki soon, too. (Of course, you would be able to place yours on theirs, too.)

While Google is a technology company, not a social media company, what their latest technology does is force feed social media on the world. If you weren’t ready for conversations with customers this morning, you’d better get ready by tonight … or faster. People are probably commenting on your site as we speak.

Google’s promotional video (below) paints a pretty picture, asking the following:

  • What if you could easily contribute to any web page and help others?
  • What if you could learn from others who have visited a page before you?

It indicates the Sidewiki will lead to pages having:

  • Expert insights on important issues
  • Helpful tips as you browse
  • Background information for more history
  • Added perspective on new technology

Oh, what a wonderful world it would be? Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. What Google Sidewiki also allows for is insults, spam and other potentially damaging comments to be added to your website’s experience. Without your permission.

However, it should be noted that not everyone is going to download the browser toolbar and see the comments. Out of that subset of the population, fewer of them will actually place comments or participate in the discussions. Of that small set of the population, though, you’ll need more brand fans than brand detractors. Are you ready for that?

While it is true that brand conversations are happening all over the web and companies should listen and participate in order to both mitigate problems, but also embrace consumer feedback and interaction, this changes the game because the comments are attached to the website in question. They aren’t on a page on an unrelated or unattached blog, wiki or social network.

Some important points:

  • The content is technically on Google’s servers and fed into the sidebar of those who download it. It’s not actually on your website. What this means is that Google has turned the browser into a supplement of your website, however. Legally, you don’t own the browser and the user opts in to the Sidewiki by downloading it and agreeing to the terms of service. So if you’re considering a lawsuit, I’m afraid you don’t have much chance to fight it.
  • While users are free to leave whatever comment they want, they have to be logged in as a Google user. So, unlike the awful comments in most newspaper’s websites, there’s at least a shred of accountability for who leaves them. Anyone can sign up for a free account, though, so the turds will be turds.
  • Users have the option of rating a comment as useful and reporting abuse. Google is, thus, relying on the community to weed out the bad stuff. You can only add your vote, though, not control what’s said on your site.

While I’m excited about the technology and the positives of having both context and perspective from erstwhile website visitors to enhance the browsing experience, I’m bothered at the supposition that the world is ready for this. This software feature is the online equivalent of people suddenly being allowed to post graffiti, flyers and posters all over the front of your building.

Jeremiah Owyang has some great insights and implications you should consider as a marketer or executive of a company in light of this development. His advice is sound and worth following. But Jeremiah falls short of the reality of the situation: Few businesses in the world are plugged in to the social vibe or are Starbucks buddies with the Silicon Valley set. There are going to be a lot of companies upset about this. While I agree this is where the world is going and businesses need to move toward understanding and embracing both the technology and the communications implications of its implementation, just telling them they have to is short-sighted.

Still, go read his advice. It’s sound and no one is going to give you better. Just get a big glass of water before. That pill is going to be a bitter one to swallow for some.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • markwilliamschaefer

    I had heard about this innovation but had not had time to really dive into it until I read your piece, Jason. My first reaction was “what if I just want to be left alone?” What if I don't want a cacaphony about my every move and my every word? I guess if you're on the web, de facto, you're in the conversation. But for some reason, this just makes me feel so EXPOSED to idiots. Isn't this just going to take us another step toward the end of dissension?

  • greggorman

    I may not be a typical web user, but if there's one thing I don't plan to do, it's add another toolbar to my browser. I believe many will, though, and I tend to agree that we're not quite ready for this.

    For those that disagree, I suggest reading the comments at the end of a news story posted online to your local paper (all the Gannett sites are the same format; take a look at http://www.courier-journal.com or http://www.pnj.com, for instance). They are at least ninety percent trolls, with another nine percent spam… The noise to signal ratio is so high as to make it useless.

    It is an interesting concept, though, and I agree that companies had better stay ahead of the game, because consumer voices are going to be heard, whether through this mechanism or another.

  • http://www.patrickokeefe.com iFroggy

    Hey Jason,

    Interesting post. :) Nice work. I agree with the thoughts provided by Greg and Mark. To me, it seems irresponsible on Google's part. But, I would also say that ideas like this have been tried in the past, as well. Maybe not by Google, but still.

    Re: lawsuits. I didn't need to opt into anything to view that link that Jeremiah posted that framed his content. It's not far fetched to see how Google might be sued for page framing. Consider the suits that have been filed and successfully won in the past. If they stick their ads on it? That's just a giant bulls eye. http://smallbusiness.findlaw.com/business-opera

    Patrick

  • John McMahon

    I'm wondering what features, if any, Google will add so you can see when someone has commented on a webpage via Sidewiki. It would be helpful for the website owner/author to be able to reply to comments without having to continually check the site, and it would allow for people to keep conversations going (I'm envisioning something similar to the e-mail updates you get when someone replies to your comment on a blog, Facebook, etc.). Interesting insight from Patrick in regards to page framing.

  • http://www.theotherdrummer.com The Other Drummer

    I could see a useful tie-in to Google Wave as a way to keep track of your comments and respond in real-time. That being said, I don't know if it will add enough value over current commenting systems, especially more advanced ones like Disqus.

  • http://hightalk.net/ George F. Snell III

    I'm with you on this one Jason. Lots of difficult questions with the launch of Sidewiki. I also blog about it here: http://bit.ly/11eEw4

    Here are some other questions:

    - Is this Google's bid to takeover online commenting in general? Will Sidewiki supersede comments that already exist at many sites?
    - Will Sidewiki allow trolls banned from forums and other sites to reappear on Sidewiki?
    - What controls will in place to monitor for misguided or wrong information?
    - Will Sidewiki attacks on corporate web sites by protesters become the norm? Think of how a group of several dozen organized protesters could completely takeover the comments on specific web pages.

  • http://mike-campbell-cpa.com Mike Campbell

    I can't believe Sidewiki is not available for Chrome. I tried to install in IE and it crashed (i.e. Done but with errors on page). Now trying in FF which is running super slow. You make some great points. I can't wait to test it. However, if it is this much of a pain, I think you are right that only a small segment of the population will use it. Unfortunately, it that small segment probably will be spammers.

  • http://www.jdpower.com/corporate/news/releases/pressrelease.aspx?ID=2008107 Apx Alarm

    It seems irresponsible on Google's part.I had heard about this innovation but had not had time to really dive into it until I read your article.I like very much your way of presentation.. I got more useful information on this blog.. Thanks to sharing the useful information….

  • http://www.soapyhollow.com/ DeAnne

    I find this problematic. As other posters have mentioned, there's just too many idiots on the loose. I strictly control who and what is published on my sites, which includes locking out spammers. As well, this sidebar breaks the layout of sites, something which many companies have paid a small fortune for, or have spent many hours creating.

    Add to that the fact that there is no way to moderate or respond or anything to what could be displayed on sites where you pay the bandwidth, and to think of competitors advertising on your space…that's just over the line.

    I don't have an issue with new and emerging media, and I think there are groovy tools for embracing the future…but for a company who swore to “do no evil”, this app seems like the potential is significantly more problematic than helpful to site owners. It appears to really only be beneficial to the ad-server; i.e., Google.

  • http://mike-campbell-cpa.com Mike Campbell

    I'm back for a another comment and a real life example. I posted a comment yesterday to a blogger who said, “DON’T try to “Friend” your clients on Facebook.” I politely disagreed in a comment that now awaits moderation. At first, I thought he removed my comment, so I posted my comment in the Sidewiki which has no moderation and has immediate publishing. I almost felt rude and ruthless.

    I don't think bloggers should remove comments just because the commenter disagrees because it doesn't allow for conversation. However, I think bloggers should have the discretion to do so. Bloggers should have the ability to choose what they find offensive or out of place. Sidewiki takes away too much control over one's own web site.

    Finally, do a search “block sidewiki” and there is some pretty easy code to protect your web site.

    • De_Anne

      But see, you've just given us a prime example of why sidewiki will be so problematic for a lot of site moderators. For instance; I have a teeny, tiny little blog that nobody pays attention to. Which is fine, I don't promote it. It exists primarily as a place for me to put research stuff, formulas and recipes. There's virtually nobody else that is interested in what I put there…and I'm ok with that.

      But…I get hundreds of spam comments. All of them hawking stuff that is either illegal, absurd, or pornographic. Some of them with links to phishing sites and whatnot. So I've installed a spam blocker on the blog. No comment will get published without me approving it, because 99% of the comments I get are spam. I don't have any issue publishing a comment that disagrees with me, or points out a mistake I've made in a formula or research…but I do have a problem posting comments that are paragraphs of nonsensical words strung together to create a link farm.

      With Sidewiki, I have no way of stopping that spam.

      And your example…has the world become so “pay attention to me NOW” that someone can't wait a day or so for a moderator to get to your comment? I suggest perhaps overriding the obvious intent of the publisher/writer is just a way for people to stamp their feet and demand immediate attention.

      Sidewiki isn't going to foster adult conversation, it's just going to enable more childish short-term gratification desire, to the detriment of actual communication.

      • http://hightalk.net/ George F. Snell III

        I think you have the issue in hand, DeAnne. Google is circumventing site moderation on blogs and forums. People who have been banned for violating rules and regulations can now infiltrate via Sidewiki. This is a real problem and robs web operators of control of their own web sites.

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  • http://twitter.com/LPT Laura P Thomas

    Definitely something to watch, but I wouldn't get too up-in-arms just yet. As already noted in others' comments, most won't download the toolbar and if it is all noise and trolls those that do won't find it useful and will abandon it. It's happened to other apps that tried to create conversation on top of web pages: http://laurapthomas.x.iabc.com/2009/09/27/sidew

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  • http://ChrisBaskind.com chrisbaskind

    > So if you’re considering a lawsuit, I’m afraid you don’t have much chance to fight it.

    Ah: since we have you, we don't need a court system. ;-)

    That there's no physical copying (one assumes) doesn't mean SideWiki isn't a derivative work. We'll just have to see. This *will* go to court. And while Google is huge, they're not magical. They'll have to answer to the same legal principles as the rest if us.

    I don't have an axe to grind with Google, but SidiWiki will raise some new questions I think can only be settled in a courtroom.

    FWIW, if this were an opt-in, I'd go for it. I'm not sure all copyright holders will agree, however.

  • http://faseidl.com F. Andy Seidl

    I'm a Google fanboy and I think Google has done a great job on its first cut at site annotations, but I still have some mixed feelings overall which I wrote about here:

    Google Sidewiki: Do [No?] Evil
    http://faseidl.com/public/item/241498

  • involve_social

    What's up with all these social media hostage situations? =X

    They can't handle the truuuuuuuth!!!!
    or the false.

    What would be cool is to have SideWiki plugged into an augmented reality browser to be able to add comments whenever when you're roaming around.

  • http://twitter.com/digitalvision Jeremiah Staes

    So, let's say someone sues you for something in your comments (it happens). But they're sidewiki comments. You have no control. Does then GOOGLE get sued? Are you held responsible for the content? In the “view” of the public, they probably don't know you don't control/moderate those comments. So they can assume that any junk on there you approved.

    I don't like Sidewiki, and think it's one of the worst ideas Google has come up with, full stop.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I don't disagree too much, Jeremiah. Thanks for the comment. You're
      right, the legal implications are complex and confusing. Ultimately
      the content is on Google's servers, though, so I assume Google would
      have responsibility. But the terms of service which all Sidewiki users
      who contribute check off dictates they end up responsible for liable,
      slander, etc. It'll be interesting to see how the world embraces this.

      Thanks for the comment.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/maia.lagerstedt Maia Lagerstedt

    This is so not cool.

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  • simontsmall

    Wikipedia and sites like it have been self managed for years, and this has the potential to achieve the same balance of fact and opinion, however, Wikipedia has very solid & clear rules & guidelines that enable people to remove inaccurate information.

    If Google don't have these core guidelines in place then it could get very noisy & useless.

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  • http://twitter.com/communitygirl Angela Connor

    I've been relying on the community to weed out the bad stuff in the community I manage that is now past 14,000 members and I can tell you first hand that is not where you want to put your money. I don't believe that full moderation or even premoderation is the key though, in online communities. But back to the main subject here…I am very concerned about the ramifications of Sidewiki and I agree that the spammers are probably having mad meetings about how they can exploit this new tool. I get the idea and I like it to some extent. It just seems like it's made for the haters.

  • http://pvhspoint.com/ The Point

    Well maybe you are over-exaggerating google's stance.

  • debbie_h2o

    I predict 95% of the people who download SideWiki in the next 6-12 months will be people especially interested or employed in social media for business. Like Twitter, it will probably never be used by the majority of people online who are generally still insecure about their ability to harness online opportunities.

    SideWiki will be impacting those who are most likely to use it, same as bloggers – I wonder if we'll see an emerging “Commenting Strategy” from the SMM who feel a need to watch & listed for all comments on various web pages.

    I'm going to see if it can work like a commenting strategy – are they posted chronoligically or by Google relevance?

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