Thursday, September 24, 2009

Google Sidewiki: Infrastructure for the Next Generation of Conversations

You are reading a blog post that started as a comment. That in and of itself is hardly unusual for people who decide to leave detailed comments on one blog and then expand on them in their own blog, but the way that I did it was through Google Sidewiki, a new feature of the Google Toolbar that is used commonly in the Firefox Web browser. Once installed, an icon on the Toolbar enables you to enter a comment-like bit of information relating to a blog entry or other Web page that you're viewing, either about the whole page or a section of text. Once you've had your say, your text (and it's only text, no links, images or other enhanced items are allowed) can be saved in Sidewiki and at the same time get pushed to an entry in one of your Blogger weblogs (finally, a small side-benefit for using Blogger). You can also easily share a comment with someone via email, Twitter or Facebook.

Tools like Sidebar have been in use for many years, but none of them have found that much of an audience. One of the reasons seems to be that comment editing systems that float on the side of a page tend not to draw your attention as you scroll down it. Sidebar may suffer this same fate in the short run, though its ability to be relevant throughout a page and contexutal to very specific parts of the page makes it an interesting companion tool that may escape similar disinterest given to other annotation tools. Its presence only in Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers also seems to limit the potential community of users, though versions for Chrome and other browsers such as Safari are likely soon. What is likely to save Sidebar from lack of interest is the fact that it's well, a Google tool, of course. Google has lacked a reasonable entry point into social media communities for some time outside of lackluster experiments such as Orkut. The voting, abuse control and integrated features that make it easy to share Sidebar content in lifestreaming services are ways for Google to play its strongest emphasis - putting all of the Web in context - alongside the strengths of other social media services. So, while it's still kind of an iffy play, it does offer some solid thinking

that may accelerate Google as a destination for valuable comment content extended out to all of the Web alongside its own Blogger blogs.

One angle where you can see how this can take on a new angle for building Google's destination content is in a feature that doesn't get much attention at first. After a bit of use I noticed a link in Sidewiki that says "view my Google profile." When you click on this link , you discover that your Google Profile page now has a tab that displays your Sidewiki comments along with links to the content that you were commenting on. This is an interesting feature, enabling Sidewiki content to act as a seeding mechanism for a Facebook-like stream of links and information. In typical Google fashion this is a subtle tool that builds content in places that you may not expect, integrating it both into the experience of visiting a Web site and visiting a friend's Google profile. This cries out for a widget-oriented implementation that can enable Sidewiki to integrate more closely with destination content as Facebook Connect enables through sites like the Huffington Post.

All of this points to the elephant not yet in the room but waiting in the hallway: Google Wave. It's clear that Sidewiki and its integration with Google Profiles is custom-tucked for Wave technology, which would enable highly sophisticated real-time content sharing with trusted peers. That's a relatively long-term strategy, though, leaving lots of room for other comment sharing tools to gain market momentum. Sidewiki is yet another interesting piece of the Google puzzle, a puzzle that encompasses so may individual little pieces popping out of the Googleplex one at a time that it's hard to appreciate at times what it is that Google is trying to do. Perhaps that's the way that they want it - a charging elephant might be a little more alarming to people. But in the meantime, a lot of people have a hard time seeing even pieces of Google's social media strategy making sense.

I found Michael Arrington's comments on the new Google Sidewiki feature to be an oddly neutral and superficial analysis, albeit with a bit of inside scoop. While this, like many other Google projects, may not seem like much at first, it has the potential for major impact. First, it comes at a time when comment spam is becoming a major problem. Technologies such as "captcha" character graphics that weed out automated comment spam are failing, as spammers are hiring people who work cheap enough to defeat these mechanisms cost-effectively with manual entry of spam. The Digg-like voting and ranking will help to push such garbage to the bottom of the comment pile.

Secondly, comments are becoming a major source of content unto themselves, as seen in platforms such as Facebook and Friendfeed. Sidewiki is an ingenious play to get that kind of community content embedded almost anywhere, while at the same time enabling the community to develop a personality of its own. This is a unique kind of platform play that defines a "between the raindrops" approach to these competitors.

This all points to one key factor - most technology platforms have done very little to improve the value of comments or to address long-standing technical issues. They're not a sexy tech feature by most techie standards, so the glory goes elsewhere. Google sees them as a major opportunity, and may have a major play as a result. I feel somewhat uncomfortable about the disintermediation factors, but the ability to post a comment as a blog entry on your Blogger weblog (finally a reward for having stuck with it!) enables you to shift the conversation to focus on your own content fairly handily. Key weakness in this feature: you can't post links or graphics in your Sidewiki content, so your entries won't be very rich. I am sure that this will be addressed in time, perhaps as a part of Wave technology being introduced.

At the end of the day, if it makes your core content more valuable and it's better technology than what you can get yourself, it's probably a good thing. I welcome better comment solutions that can compete with this, but right now we all need a little relief from comment fatigue - especially if you're trying to keep the spammers away.

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