Google Sidewiki: A Branding Nightmare?

Visitors to your company’s site can now comment upon or criticize your brand and have their thoughts appear right next to your corporate website without your permission. How should business owners handle that?

On September 23rd this year, Google released a browser sidebar called “Sidewiki” which has already created quite a stir.   Sidewiki is a Google Toolbar addon which allows visitors to contribute and read information alongside any web page, enabling point-specific comments, expert opinions, and related links to be aggregated.

Sidewiki is available on Internet Explorer, Firefox and Google Chrome. If you don’t wish to download the Google Toolbar, you can still access Sidewiki on any browser via a bookmarketlet which offers only slightly limited features.

Upon installation, the Sidewiki notification icon turns yellow if others have made Sidewiki comments on the sites you visit. You can then read these additional comments on the browser sidebar and if you have a Google account, you may also contribute to any discussions about an entire site or specific content on a web page.

Once logged into their Google profiles, Sidewiki users can click the yellow Sidewiki icon in their browser toolbar which appears when they load a website containing Sidewiki comments. This brings up the sidebar. Users may then scroll down and click the “read entries” link at the bottom of the sidebar in order to see the Sidewiki comments I wrote on my Marketing Masala blog at   I highly recommend that all site owners take a first step with Sidewiki and claim the #1 Sidewiki comment position for their websites. This first comment advantage is available to all site owners.

Google’s stated intent when it launched Sidewiki was to allow visitors to provide expanded information and helpful comments to enrich the online experience for others. Sidewiki provides a scoring system which allows other readers to vote for or against each comment, thus enabling the most helpful comments to bubble up to the top of the sidebar and potential “spammy” or malware contributions to sink lower. Some companies, however, fear that Sidewiki has opened up a Pandora’s Box by allowing detractors of their brands to post “website graffiti” next to their company sites.

What’s a Wiki?

If you’re still asking yourself “What the heck is a wiki?” then perhaps you’ve heard of Wikipedia. It’s one of the best known wikis on the internet. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopaedia which is written collaboratively by its users. Here’s the Wikipedia’s own definition of a wiki:

“a website that allows the easy[1] creation and editing of any number of interlinked web pages via a web browser using a simplified markup language or a WYSIWYG text editor.[2][3] Wikis are typically powered by wiki software and are often used to create collaborative websites, to power community websites, for personal note taking, in corporate intranets, and in knowledge management systems.”

According to Wikipedia, many people are constantly improving its own site, making “thousands of changes per hour” to verify facts and improve grammar or spelling.

Wikis or collaborative websites are one thing, but what about sticky note-like comments that show up next to your website on the browser itself?

The idea of allowing website visitors to provide annotated comments and criticisms about any site they visit isn’t new. Third Voice launched a browser plugin in 1999 which allowed web surfers to annotate any site with their comments – without the permission of the website owners. Eng-Sion Tan and two other engineering PhDs from Singapore launched Third Voice to promote greater freedom of speech on the web.

According to Wired, the developers of Third Voice hoped their application would help spark “inline discussions among web users promoting a new civic mindedness that would keep corporations, government and the media honest.”

But was Third Voice was just a little ahead of its time? Back then, before the web became more social with thousands of blogging sites and social media platforms, this was a radical and very threatening concept to owners of corporate websites.

“Launching a grassroots campaign called Say No to TV, some 400 independent Web hosts banded together to gag Third Voice, which they likened to “Web graffiti.”

Third Voice never became a killer app, garnering about 200,000 users before being discontinued due to financing issues in 2001.

While in the 1990’s consumers were very much in the grip of traditional corporate one-way, controlled brand communications, this is 2009 and things have changed. Customers have come to expect two-way interaction with their suppliers.

Responding to Sidewiki

Some manufacturers may frantically ask, “How can I block Sidewiki from appearing on my company website?” The simple answer is you can’t block it because it’s not on your site.  It actually displays next to your site on the web browser. Webmasters cannot opt out of Sidewiki currently unless they block all Google Toolbar users from accessing a corporate site which, of course, would be a poor online marketing strategy.

Sidewiki has not quite caught on in the mainstream yet, however, corporate website owners wishing to manage their own online brand reputations should be prepared. Here are five simple proactive steps your company can take to prepare for Sidewiki:

  1. download and explore Sidewiki to familiarize yourself with it
  2. write the first Sidewiki comment on your own website or blog and continue to participate to stay “above the fold” on your site’s Sidewiki
  3. monitor all other Sidewiki comments via an RSS subscription which sends new comments to either your RSS reader (such as Google Reader or Feedly etc.), or to your email inbox. Here’s how create a RSS feed for your site’s Sidewiki comments. Paste this in your web browser: Then change YOURDOMAIN to your domain, and delete the “www” part if you don’t use it.  That’s it.
  4. on websites where your brand or products are being discussed, own the Sidewiki comments by participating more on these sites.
  5. use Sidewiki commenting on other sites to have your name or brand appear on important sites within your industry

What are your thoughts on Google Sidewiki? Is there an “up” side to all this online discussion and collaboration or do you think that Google has perhaps become a bit too “god-like” in its control of our online interactions and data – all seeing, all knowing and all powerful?


Note from Women Unlimited: I came across this posts via one of the Linked In groups that I follow and had not been aware of Sidewiki’s at all.  I felt it was so important that I asked Sarah if we could re-pulish it here, which she very kindly said yes to.  It is worth following Sarah’s advice and make sure you claim that first place in the sidewiki as you won’t have a second chance to take that spot!

About the Author:Sarah Sturtevant is President/Owner of Integrated Website Solutions Inc. a consulting firm that specializes in helping industrial suppliers across Ontario, Canada, develop effective online strategies which provide measurable ROI by increasing their sales, improving their customer service, supporting their sales channels and improving their business efficiencies.She has represented in Ontario since 1996. ThomasNet is the premier vertical search engine for industry in North America and attracts 40 million industrial buyers and engineers annually. Sarah offers her industrial clients an integrated approach to the internet which includes website evaluation, website redevelopment and hosting, along with a sound strategy to drive more qualified prospects to their websites and measure the return on investment of their online campaigns. Her Ontario clients include companies with 10 to thousands of employees.

Be the change that you want to see. Step into your leadership.