By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 9:41 am
If we wait long enough, I’m convinced, every single idea from the Web 1.0 era will come back. Such as the idea of browser plug-ins that let folks attach comments to specific Web pages that can be read by anyone else who uses the plug-in. That was the idea behind such products as Third Voice, and it’s back today in the form of Google Sidewiki, a new feature in the Google Toolbar.
Turn on Sidewiki for a given Web page, and a panel opens up to the left of the page. It lets you view comments by other Sidewiki users, and post your own–here’s the one for Google itself:
Sometimes Sidewiki starts by showing existing comments, and sometimes it starts by asking me if I want to post a comment; in the later instances, the link to existing comments is way down at the bottom of the page and hard to find. Seems to me it would be more tempting to post a comment if it were a bit easier to see existing ones. I’d also like to leave the Sidewiki window open all the time for easy perusal, but as far as I can tell it closes each time you go to a new site, and must be reopened manually.
Google says that Sidewiki is about sharing “insights” and “helpful” information–and ultimately, the feature will succeed or flop based on the insightfulness and helpfulness of the comments that folks post. Even with millions of Google Toolbar users, it’s going to take awhile for Sidewiki to fill up with comments, so it’s tough to judge it right now. But there are already some posts that are less than helpful and insightful:
As you can see above, you can rate individual comments as being useful or non-useful; over time, this will presumably help push the good stuff to the top and make the dross (of which there will inevitably be a lot) less prominent. Google says it’s using other technologies to rate comments too, such as previous posts by the author in question.
The company also says that Sidewiki is smart enough to show a comment in multiple places it’s relevant–the example it gives is that a comment on a quote from a speech by President Obama will appear anywhere that the quote does. Sounds promising. But I’ve noticed an instance or two of comments showing up where they don’t make sense, such as this one about a scandal at the Fry’s electronics chain which shows up at my Facebook login page:
Will Sidewiki succeed where Third Voice and others failed? It certainly has a better shot: Google has the luxury of being patient with it even if it doesn’t make a nickel off it directly, and it’s part of a plug-in that’s already extremely popular. As a part of Google Toolbar, Sidewiki isn’t available for Apple’s Safari or for Google’s own Chrome; Google says it’s working to bring it to more browsers. You gotta wonder whether it’s considering offering a version that doesn’t require a plug-in at all–and/or letting you view Sidewiki comments about a site when you’re still on a page of Google results.
Sidewiki reminds me a little of earlier Google user-generated content efforts such as Google Base and Knol, both of which serve as sobering reminders that this stuff can only succeed if the users generate good content in large quantities. Then again, adding information to Base and Knol involves a fair amount of work; with Sidewiki, you can say something useful (or something completely lame) with just a few clicks. If you check it out, tell us what you think.