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Google Sidewiki: Tech-Geeks Shrug, Website Owners Twitch

Bobby Travis

Bobby Travis

This is a post by Bobby Travis, who wrote with me at 40Tech from 2009 through 2012. Bobby has since moved on to bigger and better things, but I've left all of his great contributions up on the site. - Evan
Bobby Travis

Google Sidewiki - Free commenting by anyone on almost any website | 40tech.com Google Sidewiki, a tool that allows people to comment directly on nearly any website, launched this past week to muted shrugs from the tech world and a nervous shudder by website and business owners alike. Sidewiki is a part of Google Toolbar, widely available for and in active use on Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers, and will be built directly into Google Chrome (it is not supported at this time).

If it’s handled well, Sidewiki could prove to be a very interesting and useful tool, from a user perspective. If handled badly, it will suffer a long and gruesome death (for both readers and abused websites).

The purpose of Sidewiki is to allow people who use Google Toolbar to easily find pertinent, user-created information on websites and businesses — information that is not under the influence of the website’s resident marketing genius (hence the nervous shudder). However, as some of the more prominent tech reviewers point out, not only has this been tried before (and failed), but users can already accomplish this kind of information sharing via multiple other services (blogs, forums, review sites, Twitter, etc.) The main difference in Sidewiki is that user comments and reviews, as well as some blog posts, are attached directly to the webpages themselves via an expanding sidebar. You can read through the items, add your own take, and share any comment instantly via email, Facebook, IM or Twitter. Comments can even be attached directly to specific content on the page and are indicated by handy little chat-style bubbles that just beg to be clicked on.

The first iterations of web annotation were hacked to pieces by business owners out of pure fear — that was about 10 years ago, when the web was still a backward and scary place — in today’s web, rapid transfer of user-coined Information is all the rage. With Google’s massive weight thrown behind It, and the hundreds of millions of Google Toolbar users that are about to get an upgrade, the timing may be just right for Sidewiki’s success, though it is bound to have some serious hurdles to overcome.

 

Spam Problems and Google’s Solution

There are a number of problems that Sidewiki will have to surmount before it can expect to rule the land of user comments. The biggest of these issues is spam. Does anyone remember Searchwiki? It is a very similar tool, also by Google, that was designed to allow users to comment on search results. Something about an open forum, though, brings out the worst in people — or at least attracts idiots. As a result, Searchwiki is commonly viewed as an useless abomination due to the extreme overabundance of spam on the service. Google assures us that this will not be the case with Sidewiki. This is a good thing. No one is too keen to have a stream of flaming comments and useless crap attached to their website in any way — and no one really wants to read that crap either.

Google’s approach with Sidewiki was to spend most of the development phase with a bunch of engineers working on a fancy new algorithm. This algorithm will attempt to weed out the useless and inane and float only the highest quality comments to the top of the list.

The algorithm works on three major Levels:

  • Use of sophisticated language (sorry to the folks who have already made their list of sites to attack with “Lame” and You Suck *___* comments).
  • User reputation — make sure your comments are useful or people will use the built in flagging service to bury them.
  • User History — this is not just how long you have been commenting. Google also takes into account your Google Profile (do you have one, how long have you had it, are you active, etc.). 

The higher you rank in the above, the better your comments will do overall. The most interesting thing here is the emphasis on Google Profile (your mysterious “Profile Rank is also taken into account in your comments’ viability). For me, that seemed to come out of nowhere, but it does add a bit of a check and balance to the system in that it brings with it some small sense of accountability. Not only do you have to be logged in to Google services to use Sidewiki (just to comment, not to read), but your comments are posted directly to your Google Profile for the world to see (this may have the added affect of getting more people to look past the inherent ugliness of Google Profiles and start using one).

Side note on the above: Don’t be fooled if you see your comment on the top of the list. As long as you are logged In, you will always see your comments first. Log out and you will see what others see.

 

General Use

Once you are logged in to Google Sidewiki, find yourself a page that already has a few comments (Google.com and Microsoft.com are no-brainers). Click on the little chat bubbles or the blue tab with the white >> on it and Sidewiki will open. You can resize the sidebar by clicking and dragging the right edge.

Google Sidewiki in action on Google's homepage | 40tech.com

Scan through the comments, click on them and they will expand and offer you sharing and voting options. If there are enough comments, there will be a next button. If you click that you may see an example of the algorithm at work in a small message at the top that lets you know “these entries may be less useful” than the others. This is evidenced well by the image below in which someone comments “Really interesting” on Google’s homepage. Nothing racy, but definitely not enough content to make the cut. There is some question of the algorithm’s effectiveness though, as the comments below the one mentioned seem to be of higher quality — perhaps he had a higher profile rank? Only time will tell, I suppose.

How Google Sidewiki handles low-quality comments | 40tech.com

In any case, to make your own comment, there is a Write New Entry button in the bottom left of the sidebar. Sometimes it is overlapping with a comment and hard to read — they are still working out the kinks, it seems. Another option is, with Sidewiki collapsed, look for the tiny little, square, pencil icon on the left of your page. Click it and you are on your way to writing your first entry.

A final option is to select some text on the page (with Sidewiki open or closed). When you do this, the pencil icon will pop up in line with your selection, and when you click it, Sidewiki will let you know that you are writing an entry about what you selected. Once your comment is posted, you will see that the little chat bubble will indicate there is a comment near the section of the page where you selected the text. You also have the option to share your own comments via the social bookmarking tools. Go take a look at your Google Profile, as well, if you have one. You will see the comment listed there.

Google Profile of Author Robert Travis - Note Sidewiki post | 40tech.com

That’s it. Done. That’s all there is to it. Unless you want your comments to get noticed, of course. For that, as I mentioned above, you need to get out there and actually use Sidewiki on a fairly regular basis, especially as it gains in popularity. 

NOTE: Some people have expressed privacy concerns regarding the use of Google Sidewiki. This is due to the fact that you must allow Google to access your usage information for Sidewiki to work (much like the Web History tool, also part of Google Toolbar). This is bound to bother a few people, especially in light of Google’s notoriously vague Privacy Policy. As with anything, you should take a moment to read the terms of use, and then decide for yourself.

Personally, I think Sidewiki has a good chance of making it, though it does have some competition in companies like Diigo, DotSpots, Fleck and Trailfire. As mentioned in this article on the Bluetoque Marketing Tips blog, websites owners and users alike may just have to suck it up and attempt to play nice with one another. This is just one more step to a potentially more useful and socially connected web, and even if Sidewiki flops, there will be another attempt at it from someone else at a later date.

 

What do you think of Google Sidewiki? Will you use it? Will the algorithm keep the spammers at bay? Let us know in the comments.