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September 27, 2009

Google SideWiki Encourages Public Graffiti on Any Site

Google has launched a controversial new tool that allows the public to comment on any web site in a side bar displayed in their browser.

Called Google Sidewiki, the tool is integrated in the latest version of Google Toolbar and works with both Firefox and Internet Explorer but ironically, not yet Google Chrome. To use Sidewiki, download the latest version of the Google Toolbar and set it to enhanced.

When activated, Sidewiki slides across from the left and becomes a browser sidebar, where you can write entries in a vertical column and read the entries of others. To activate Sidewiki, you simply click on the Sidewiki button in your Toolbar menu or the little talk bubble on the left hand side of your screen.


If you’ve got a Google profile, your image will appear next to your Sidewiki entry. You can either highlight a certain part of a web page, click the Sidewiki button and comment about it, or you can make a general comment about the entire web page. If you’ve got Sidewiki installed, you can see comments made on the same web site by other members of the public and you can forward your Sidewiki comments to colleagues, friends and family via direct link, email, Twitter or Facebook.

It appears that persons can read the Sidewiki comments sent via link whether they have Sidewiki installed or not. When you’re logged into Sidewiki, you’ll always see your comments at the top and any others below.

Not only does your Sidewiki entry appear on the original page, but if you have highlighted text, your entry also appears on any webpages that contain the same snippet of text that your comment is about. From the official blog post:

“Under the hood, we have even more technology that will take your entry about the current page and show it next to webpages that contain the same snippet of text. For example, an entry on a speech by President Obama will appear on all webpages that include the same quote. We also bring in relevant posts from blogs and other sources that talk about the current page so that you can discover their insights more easily, right next to the page they refer to.”

Rather than viewing them in the order in which they were written, Sidewiki entries are ranked via an algorithm determined by Google:

“So instead of displaying the most recent entries first, we rank Sidewiki entries using an algorithm that promotes the most useful, high-quality entries. It takes into account feedback from you and other users, previous entries made by the same author and many other signals we developed.”

The technology used to determine ranking involves large-scale graph computing but other factors are at play, as revealed by Danny Sullivan in his post about Sidewiki. These include use of sophisticated language, complex sentences and ideas, user reputation and user history as revealed by your Google profile and comment contributions. Your comments and other can be thumbed up or down using the “useful – yes or no?” tool, or reported as abuse, further contributing to your user reputation and “Profile Rank” as Danny calls it.

Google have also launched an API that allows developers to work freely with the content created in Sidewiki. Where no comments have been made on a web page, Google may show blog results relating to that page.

The potential applications of Sidewiki are interesting and frightening at the same time. For example, I can see how it could be a useful bookmarking tool, allowing you to make notes about a web site you’ve found which you could refer to later. You can even embed YouTube videos in Sidewiki (take a look at the Google home page to see this in action).

It also has fantastic potential as an online collaboration tool, letting you annotate the pages on a site in conjunction with team members in a similar way to tracking changes in a MS Word document and sharing document versions via Google Docs.

BUT, (and it’s a big but), I can see Sidewiki being open to abuse in a similar way to Searchwiki, Google’s comment tool for search engine result pages. Searchwiki has been widely panned in the search industry because it’s Notes feature has been exploited by spammers, overactive PR companies and people with a chip on their shoulder about certain web brands. Unfortunately, I see Sidewiki heading in the same direction. And fast.

Any user controlled element of a search engine is open to some level of abuse. But I don’t see a huge amount of comment filtering going on yet and have already seen evidence of spamming (view the Microsoft home page with Sidewiki installed and you’ll see anti-MS entries like this one).

Yes Google have a usefulness rating system in place, a Report Abuse link and are flagging some comments with the disclaimer “These entries may be less useful” but I doubt their filters will be able to keep up as Sidewiki takes off. There’s also going to be the troll factor which will undoubtedly lead to the system becoming worthless if it’s not carefully controlled. I’ve viewed Sidewiki entries on some major sites this week and it’s already starting to feel like Toilet Wall Graffiti 2.0.

Sidewiki has program policies but spammers don’t care about those and trolls don’t read them. Besides, one man’s graffiti is another man’s gospel.

Google’s catch phrase for Sidewiki is: “Contribute helpful information to any web page”. To that, I say: Define helpful.

Article by Kalena Jordan, one of the first search engine optimization experts in Australia, who is well known and respected in the industry, particularly in the U.S. As well as running a daily Search Engine Advice Column, Kalena manages Search Engine College – an online training institution offering instructor-led short courses and downloadable self-study courses in Search Engine Optimization and other Search Engine Marketing subjects.

17 Responses to “Google SideWiki Encourages Public Graffiti on Any Site

    “There’s also going to be the troll factor which will undoubtedly lead to the system becoming worthless if it’s not carefully controlled.”

    I couldn’t agree more and see this as the reason that Sidewiki is one to watch, but not get too up-in-arms over just yet.


    avatar Greg says:

    I agree with the author on this. I think this is a bad idea and opens businesses up to abuse. Just imagine one disgruntled customer how gets on this and starts slamming a business. It can cost that business literally thousands if not tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. The old adage is that one unhappy client will tell nine other people about his bad experience. Happy customers are generally quiet. If that’s true, then too much of the negative sort will proliferate on this type of app.


    avatar says:

    useful information. It’s the best

    avatar Dave Haber says:

    Great post, Kalena. I agree that this is very prone to abuse. Already I’ve noticed a lot of activity from marketers and SEOs who are posting low-value remarks simply for an opportunity to benefit from the visibility of high traffic websites. I’m not sure what Google’s plan is to combat this, or how efficient their algorithm is at “censoring” this content, but it’s a fine line between valuable user generated content and “bathroom wall graffiti”.

    Thanks for your post. I’ve linked to it from mine on the same subject:

    Google Sidewiki: Changing the Game?


    Dave Haber
    Digital Marketing Consultant

    avatar PeterK says:

    I agree that there is a huge potential for negative spam from competition. Now… It might be only me but besides web professionals(bloggers, SEOs etc) I do not know that many people that actually have the google tool bar installed. Must be the latest version, must be set it to enhanced… Seems to me that SEOs are going to be spamming themselves

    avatar Biz-O-Matic says:

    Why does Google have to take post-modern pluralism to such an extreme? They are so obsessed with systems, but seem to care little about systems affects on culture or individuals.

    I love Google by the way!

    I think this will get largely ignored by the masses as do most of Google’s tools.

    avatar Kris Malena says:

    Oh Google and their secret algorithms. Enough already

    avatar SeoNext says:

    Google Sidewiki is a lovely example of the power of DESIGN + TECHNOLOGY + BUSINESS being harnessed all together to find new possibilities and create useful solutions for customers.I like the product. Now, any time you want to add information to a web page.Nice informative post.

    avatar SEO India says:

    Yes, there is a lot of room for abuse. Popular sites are likely to suffer. But I think on smaller sites that dont get the attention of spammers, this feature could be useful to some extent. Its is better that for the time being no SEO value is attributed to this feature.

    I think that Bing’s sidebar info. is much more useful as it shows details of what the page is all about – not someones biased opinion of it. What is great info for someone may not be what you are looking for and it is much less open to abuse.

    avatar Bill Masson says:

    Google goes from strength to strength, its early days yet and I suspect it will go through a few changes once the feedback builds up. Spammers and anybody with a grudge will always make use of online tools like Sidewiki, but overall its a great addition to Googles toolbox.

    avatar Kouba says:

    Interesting and informative. But will you write about this one more?

    avatar Daniel K. says:

    Well, functionality offered by Sidewiki is nothing really brand-new on the Internet – other than it’s offered by Google (the data octopus!). I’m currently using Fytch for all my Social Commenting on the web (pretty new too). Basically I like it because it works without installing anything on your machine, no app, no plugin, nothin that records me. It’s simply a bookmarklet so I can use it also when working from a machine in the University. Fully agree to others guys here – yes, there might be room for a abuse. However, a vivid community will report spam and vote down inappropriate stuff.

    avatar Bintang says:

    Sometime we don’t want to be commented.

    Really this is good post about Google Sidewiki.I like this post very much. I am sure that your post will definitely be of help to all reader like me.Thanks a lot.Keep blogging.

    avatar Polly says:

    Political activists, sharpen your wits – now no government or company website is beyond your commentary (or is someone already developing a Sidewiki blocker?).

    avatar SEO Desk says:

    Good post about Google sidewiki we have had lots of fun with it in our office.

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