One of the great things about Web 2.0 is the empowerment of average users. With Twitter and Facebook pages, individuals can now respond back to companies and organizations with a few strokes of the keyboard. Google’s recently entered the fray with an intriguing project called Sidewiki. Once again, companies and nonprofits interested in managing their online brands need to be aware of the new medium and how to track it.
What is Sidewiki?
Google started its sidewiki project in September 2009. It’s a sidebar that can attach to any page on the internet via the Google Toolbar. Users gain the ability to comment on any page on the internet. Google uses a ranking system based on votes and various algorithms to determine the order of the comments.
When a user of the Google Toolbar visits a page with Sidewiki notes they see a small blue button of the left side of the page with two white chevrons (see screenshot on the right). Clicking on this opens the Sidewiki sidebar. Here they will see comments left by previous visitors. They are be able to add their own comments.
Visionaries have long dreamed of a web with this kind of two-way communication but similar sidebar commenting systems have failed to gain enough momentum to become viable. If this were just another venture-capital-fueled attempt, it would be something marketers could ignore unless and until it became widely used. But with Google behind Sidewiki, it’s a service we need to take seriously from the start.
Users Talking Back
When we put together websites, we get to control the message of our little corner of the internet – we have the final say on the material we present. If Sidewiki becomes popular, this will no longer be true. Fans, disgruntled employees and competitors can all start marking up our sites – yikes! But those brands that have embraced the Web 2.0 model will love another place where they can interact with their audience. Today’s marketing goal is mindshare – how much of a user’s attention span can you win over. The more you get visitors to think about your brand or your message, the more likely that they will buy or recommend your product or service. You need to be active on whatever online channel your audience is using.
Watching the Conversations
What’s a good brand manager to do? The first thing is to make sure you have the latest version of Google Toolbar installed on your working browser (get it here) and that you have the Sidewiki service enabled (I’ve started a Sidewiki for this entry so if it’s working you’ll see the blue button in your browser).
Google allows website owners the first comment. If you are registered as the owner of a site via Google Webmaster Tools, then you get first say: when you post to the Sidewiki of a page you control, Google gives you the top spot. This is very good. Should you do it?
Probably not. At least not yet. I don’t see people using Sidewiki yet. Most websites still don’t have any comments. Even Google’s projects often fail to gain traction and there’s no guarantee that Sidewiki will take off. If your page doesn’t have any comments, I wouldn’t recommend that you make the first. If there are no Sidewiki entries, the blue button won’t be there and visitors probably won’t even think to comment.
If you notice that a visitor has started a Sidewiki for your site by leaving a comment, then it’s time to log into your Google Webmasters account and leave an official welcome message. Even though you’re second to the conversation, you will get first position thanks to your ownership of the website.
The introductory note should briefly welcome visitors. It will appear alongside your website so there’s no need to repeat your mission statement, but it is a place where you can give helpful navigation tips and stress any actionable items that the casual visitor might miss. You might consider inviting visitors to sign up for your site’s email list, for example.
Users can tie their Sidewiki comments into Twitter and Facebook accounts. They can leave video comments. If the service takes off there will surely be a mini-industry built around comment optimization. Spammers will get hard at work to game the system. But none is really happening now. Despite a bit of fear-mongering on marketing blogs, Google Sidewiki is a long ways away from being something to lose sleep over.