Google Force Feeds Social Media On The World

by Jason Falls |
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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 the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls 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 Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).