Google’s Sidewiki 101 for Brand Managers

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).

Brand Man­age­ment
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.

The Future
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. 

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