This week, Google released a public beta version of its new Sidewiki, a browser sidebar feature that lets you add comments to any (yes, any) Web page. (You can read the official Google blog post or an article from Ars Technica that describes it.) You actually don't add the comment to the Web page itself, but your comment is linked to that page, and all comments added for that page can be seen by anyone else who visits it and who has downloaded the Google toolbar. Google Sidewiki is a feature added to the browser and not to a Web site, thus giving the Web site owner no control over the comments and no legal ground to stand on if you end up with a lot of harsh comments. (I can only imagine the kind of ranting we'll see on Creationist Web sites!)
I'm going to have to reserve judgement for the time being. It's exciting the way a new pit bull puppy is exciting: In the beginning, it'll be fun to feed it and watch it grow, but it can quickly grow into something dangerous that could eat your children.
There are some safeguards built into Sidewiki:
- You have to have a Google account to use it. This will (one hopes) lessen the opportunity to leave profane, argumentative, juvenile, and jejune comments anonymously. It also gives Google a lot more information about its users; some bloggers are bringing up Big Brother in their descriptions.
- Comments won't appear in chronological order. Sidewiki will use an algorithm (Google has an algorithm for everything, no?) to rank a page's comments by relevance. If it's anything like their search algorithm, I don't hold much hope that it'll work well. If you own the site (presumably indicated by linking Google Analytics and Webmaster codes embedded in the site to your Google account), you can create an anchor comment that will stick to the top of the Sidewiki panel. Site owners can use this space to inficate what type of comments are expected of site visitors. (So far, the people who've tried Sidewiki haven't really know what type of comments to leave.)
- Comments can be policed and ranked by the community. Drawing off the ideas crowdsource ranking sites like StumbleUpon and Digg, visitors can thumb up or thumb down a comment that is more or less helpful. There is also a way to report over-the-top, unacceptable comments. (It seems to me that it would take an enormous workforce just to review these abuse reports. Could we see mass hirings of low-level workers at Google soon?)
- Google's legal language sets decent limits. Google reserves the right to limit the number of transmissions or the amount of storage space that a user can use. This ought to rein in bots and automatic spam in the Sidewiki. They also prohibit access to the Sidewiki services through any means other than Google's interface. (This, of course, can be bypassed with a written agreement with Google.)
I think people's biggest fear right now is that using the Sidewiki gives the Google folks an awful lot of personally identifiable information about online habits. It's a breakdown of the wall of anonymity. I perused the user agreement looking for language about what Google can do with your comments. I was uplifted when I read the legal language allowing Google to "pre-screen, review, flag, filter, modify, refuse, and remove" comments. Notice some missing words: republish, sell, market, repackage, etc. However, farther down in the legal lingo we find that Google can give your content to its partners for syndication. Your comments could make someone else some money. I'm not opposed to capitalism, but I am worried about plagiarism and intellectual property. As I said before, I'm going to have to reserve judgement until I see what actually transpires.
I'd been looking around for a cheap, simple commenting feature to add to my own Web site (Infinite Cadenza). Now I'm going to hold off on that and invite (the few) people who visit my site to use Sidewiki. I think a tool like this could be quite useful for small sites like mine, and could be a great source for me to figure out what types of content I should publish next. I don't know that big sites with lots of visitors will get much good out of being forced into social media. It's going to be a big mess come election time in 2012.
I couldn't find any information about what types of analytics Google will be able to offer Web site owners, and I'm really interested in what I'll find. (I've added a comment to my own site to see what pops up in my analytics.) I'm sure I'll post more about this later as I learn more about it.