What Google’s Sidewiki Means to Marketers

Oh boy. If you still thought you could maintain total control over your brand online, Google’s about to rock your world.

On September 23, Google released Sidewiki, a Google Toolbar-based plug-in that allows anyone to add her own shared side notes to any (yes, any) Web page. The basic idea is that every page on your site now comes with a publicly accessible discussion board that cannot be moderated.

Before brand managers start jumping out of windows to avoid being yelled at by your bosses who can’t understand why people would be allowed to do this (and I’m sure they will), Google has built in some controls. First, there’s an algorithm that determines which comments are more relevant and moves them to the top of the sidebar. Of course, exactly how relevance is determined has yet to be explained (and probably never will be), leading to yet another SEO (define) type battle, where “experts” duke it out over whether they can get your comments to the top of the heap.

Sidewiki also includes a number of social features, including one for voting on a comment’s usefulness and another for reporting abuse. According to the “report a policy violation” page, “abuse” is defined as being spam, illegal content, or content that advocates hate or violence. The same page warns users, however, that “just because you disagree with someone’s point of view does not mean it violates any policies” and urges users who think that the comments may infringe on their copyright to file an official Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint. Yeah, good luck with that.

What’s the future for Sidewiki? First, look to the past. In 1999, a startup called Third Voice essentially provided the same service and ended up going down in flames after being battered by a very loud public outcry. Third Voice was a bit more intrusive: users could leave comments as pop-ups on the page, leading to cries of “digital graffiti.” But even then, people immediately went to the “this violates my copyright” complaint, a charge that Google seems to be preemptively addressing on its complaint page.

Interestingly, however, the idea of page annotations goes even further back in Web history. Mosaic 1.2, one of the first Web browsers released in the early ’90s, contained a group annotation function that was later removed because of server-load issues.

Sidewiki might not be a new concept, but for today’s marketers it’s sure to raise a huge stink. Heck, when I mentioned it to a colleague, his first words were, “Sean, that’s the end of the world!” I’m sure he’s not alone in that feeling.

The reality is that Sidewiki represents something that’s been clear since the Web began: there’s nowhere for bad companies to hide anymore. If you’re creating crappy products or delivering services that don’t meet expectations you’ve been setting with your marketing, people will know. Sure, it may have been more difficult for them to find out before social media because they had to surf discussion boards or opinion sites to get others’ opinions. Sidewiki just makes it a lot easier, a lot more immediate, and a lot more closely linked to your brand.

Brands have never been completely under the control of the company or organization trying to communicate its message to the world. Sure, before the Internet the word of mouth that accompanied a brand was limited to the available communications channels: talking over the back fence, calling a friend on the telephone, or sometimes even writing a letter to the editor (that might or might not get published) to a print publication or calling in to a radio show. Spin was a little easier to handle then because control of media rested in the hands of a few who controlled the technology and, thus, the conversation.

The Internet blew that conceit out of the water. An instantly accessible, open, global communications network ripped control away from producers and big media and put it firmly in consumers’ hands. Entire industries — entertainment, newspapers, travel, even medicine — have been turned on their heads by these changes or (in the case of newspapers) forced into virtual extinction. People could have a voice and they made that voice heard.

It’s been said before that brands are conversations, but that pronouncement hasn’t taken things far enough. Sidewiki — and other social networking platforms and, indeed, social media in general — makes it clear that brands are now collaborations. Yes, there’s a conversation that goes on, but the actual thing that happens that we call brand is now being created every day by companies and the rest of us who come into contact with those companies. Brand is created collaboratively and becomes the sum of all of its experiences and messages. Sidewiki might seem horrifying to some, but it’s just making this collaboration concrete. We might want to fight it, but it’s going to exist regardless of the technological platform that brings it to us. We can either fight it — and surely lose — or embrace it by acknowledging the collaboration and joyfully participating in the chaos.

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