Google Sidewiki is a new feature being added today to the Google Toolbar that allows anyone to leave comments about pages as they surf the web. Love something you’re reading? Hate it? You can share your views with others who visit the page and who also have Sidewiki enabled. Share, that is, if Google thinks your comment is good enough.
NOTE: Sidewiki is set to launch at 8am Pacific Time today. This post was originally scheduled to go live then, but the news started leaking out. The Sidewiki link above should start working then.
There have been any number of similar tools like this over the years, so many that I’ve lost track of their names (Third Voice was one — thanks, Ethan Kaplan). None really caught on. But this is Google, with millions of toolbars installed. That’s no guarantee of success that Sidewiki will get used, but it’s certainly worth sitting up and taking notice of. Below, how the Sidewiki system works.
Sidewiki Phone Home
To use Sidewiki, you have to get the latest version of the Google Toolbar for either Internet Explorer or Firefox (Google Chrome isn’t yet supported). For it to work, you have to enable the “enhanced” version of the Toolbar:
This means allowing the toolbar to report back to Google about all the pages you view. If Google doesn’t know the page you’re visiting, it can’t send back any Sidewiki information that’s available.
It’s not new for the toolbar to send information back to Google, if certain features are enabled. It has operated this way for nearly a decade, for anyone who uses the toolbar for PageRank viewing. Those using the toolbar as part of Google’s Web History feature also let information flow back. In all these cases, information only flows back if the user expressly enables the toolbar to do so. Don’t like the idea of Google tracking what you view via the toolbar? Then don’t enable the enhanced features. Also see Google Search History Expands, Becomes Web History for more about toolbar tracking and privacy issues.
You’ve Got Sidewiki!
Comfortable with tracking? Then here’s what you see with Sidewiki enabled, when you come to a page that has Sidewiki information associated with it. In this example, the Google home page itself:
See that little note bubble that the arrow is pointing at? That tiny sliver of a border, along with the bubble, lets you know that Sidewiki information is available. If you click bubble or the >> tab, the Sidewiki panel opens up like this:
Behold, comments! The comments are being shown within a separate browser window. They’re not overlaid onto the original page, as some tools have done in the past or still do. Nor is the page framed. The page URL doesn’t change. The browser just opens up a different window alongside the original page, where related Sidewiki information is shown.
All Comments Are Not Created Equal
What comments are shown, and in what order? Google secret sauce time. The official line is this:
Using multiple signals based on the quality of the entry, what we know about the author, and user-contributed signals such as voting and flagging, we work hard to ensure that only the highest quality, most relevant entries appear in the sidebar. Most of the engineering work for Sidewiki was dedicated to this ranking algorithm.
When I talking with Google about Sidewiki, they gave me a few other factors, such as:
- Use of sophisticated language: “This page sucks” isn’t sophisticated; think complex sentences and ideas. Apparently, Google has a language sophistication detector now, and one that works in the 14 different languages that Sidewiki supports.
- User’s reputation: Are your comments being voted up or flagged down?
- User’s history: How long have you had a Google Profile? How long have you been commenting?
See that mention of Google Profiles in there? Got yours yet? If not, read our past article, Hoping To Improve People Search, Google Launches “Profile Results”. It covers how Google Profiles were expanded earlier this year, and what you can do to improve yours
Just as Google gives any page on the web a PageRank score that reflects its authority, so too does each Google Profile page have its own form of what I’d call either “personal PageRank” or “ProfileRank,” when it comes to the Sidewiki system. Those with more ProfileRank have a better shot of their comments appearing. ProfileRank alone isn’t enough, however. The content of the web page, the quality of the comment and many other factors are taken into account.
Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing your ProfileRank. For example, look at my Danny Sullivan profile, and there’s nothing that indicates the degree of reputation I carry within the Sidewiki system. That’s something Google said they’d consider changing, when I raised it, but there are no immediate plans to do so.
Profiles, by the way, are supposed to reflect all the comments a particular person has made. When I looked during testing, these weren’t showing, so I don’t have a screenshot example. But this is supposed to be activated when Sidewiki goes public.
Comments & The Quality Threshold
As discussed, Google spent a lot of time trying to figure how to rank the comments that are shown. Moreover, not all comments even make the cut. Some pages might not show a Sidewiki tab, even if there’s Sidewiki material, unless that threshold is reached. Similarly, some comments might not be shown until readers “Next” their way deeper. Those deemed of lower quality get flagged, as shown below in a further example from Google’s home page:
Also be aware that you’ll always see your own comments, regardless of the threshold factor. If you want to see what others view, sign-out of Sidewiki. You’ll still be able to see Sidewiki information when signed out. You just won’t be able to add new material, and your own material won’t be elevated to the top.
If At First The Comments Don’t Succeed, Try Showing Blog Posts
Since the system is brand new, to help jump-start its usefulness, Google may show related blog entries for a page that lacks comments. You can see this in the example below for the Twitter home page:
The first three results all seem decent enough, but the fourth? Odd. And later in my testing, that one dropped out. Still, I have a personal reason to think the system behind selecting blog posts to show isn’t that great.
When looking at blog posts about Bing, Sidewiki listed only one item worth showing:
OK, that’s legendary tech columnist Walt Mossberg making the cut. No complaints there. But when you drill further into more comments:
You get multiple posts from TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb, as shown above. Those are great sources, but why not some variety?
Keep drilling down into more comments, and you get some different sources but not one single article from Search Engine Land about Bing. We’ve written some of the most extensive coverage about Bing that’s out there. None of our posts make the cut at all?
First, Google told me this:
The idea is that we recognize that blogs are another great source of informative and helpful content, so we try to include blog posts when we determine they are relevant about a particular URL. This is done algorithmically, and we use the same algorithm for ranking blog entries as we do for user entries. Right now since there are so few user entries, the majority you will see browsing the web are blog entries, but that shouldn’t be the case after many people are contributing content.
Uh huh. I pressed further. Give us some factors that might be at play here, please! The immediate thought that came to my mind was that because Search Engine Land doesn’t serve out a full text feed of our stories, we might be hurting ourselves against other sites. Yes, Google confirmed that was part of the issue. Google also added that user feedback from the “Useful” also has an influence.
The Useful Buttons
Select any Sidewiki entry, and you’ll see that you’re asked if the entry is “useful” along with a Yes / No choice.
You can also see the total number of votes. In addition, if you think a comment is out-of-line for some reason, you can select the “Report Abuse” option.
So how do you actually put your thoughts out there? Easy. When you come to a page, click on the Sidewiki button, which will make a comment entry window open:
Once done, save your entry, and that’s it. You can embed links using HTML code (they’ll be nofollow ones that don’t pass link juice). You can also drop a YouTube link into a comment, and a video embed frame will automatically be generated.
Need to change your comment? Use the edit option at the bottom of the entry:
You can also delete it using an option also at the bottom.
In addition to commenting on a page, you can also comment about particular parts of a page. For example, say there’s a quote on a page you’re viewing. You can highlight the quote, then make a Sidewiki entry that’s associated with just that text. Then there’s some further magic. If that quote appears on other pages, your comment will be associated in the right place on those pages as well.
Each comment exists as a standalone URL, such as this one I made about the Twitter home page. Anyone can read Sidewiki entries, even if they do NOT have the toolbar. In fact, Google encourages that the links be shared. At the bottom of each comment is a share option. When selected, this allows you to copy a link to the entry, email the link, or send the link to Twitter or Facebook.
Page Owner / Site Owner Comments
Not so thrilled with the idea that people might leave comments on your site? I suspect many will be uneasy about this, especially if competitors begin link dropping.
Unfortunately, there’s no way you can block the comments from being displayed. You can, however, claim the first comment for yourself. If you’ve verified ownership of a site through Google Webmaster Central, then you’ll see a special notice whenever you comment on one of your own pages:
Tick the box, and your comment will come above all others. If you’ve shared ownership of your site with several people, then any of them will also see this option.
How about making your comment long so that you push off all others? That won’t work, as Google condenses comments and adds a “more” link when there are more than can be shown. However, in addition to making an official top-of-page owner comment, you can also make additional comments that will be interspersed according to the comment ranking algorithm.
As I wrote this, I kept having to stop myself from writing Searchwiki rather than Sidewiki. SearchWiki, released almost a year ago (see Google SearchWiki Launches, Lets You Build Your Own Search Results Page), is a system designed to let people leave comments associated with search results pages. Since that time, the system seems to have gone nowhere. I seldom encounter people saying they’re using it. Soon after it launched, working with Enquisite, I found practically no traffic was being driven to Search Engine Land from pages where we had good SearchWiki representation.
In short, SearchWiki feels like a dud. Google Knol launched last year was designed to promote high quality authorship. Despite fears it would be come a new Wikipedia, it also largely feels like a dud. A system inviting people in the news to comment on Google News certainly was a dud, being closed in July after running for nearly two years.
Sidewiki feels like another swing at something Google seems to desperately desires — a community of experts offering high quality comments. Google says that’s something that its cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted more than a system for ranking web pages. They really wanted a system to annotate pages across the web.
Of course, there’s a way this already happens, through existing commenting system that many sites have. Google may produce unease in some quarters by pushing its own would-be universal commenting system (through an API, anyone can have Sidewiki comments be embedded into their actual pages). Others tired of moderation and spam fighting may feel relieve that Google might provide more relevant comments.
Certainly Google’s goal is to be something more than another commenting system.
“I think we would have failed if people were using it to say ‘Obama sucks’,” said Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management at Google.
That’s not to say the system is meant to promote pro-Obama comments! Rather, the hope is to produce more intelligent and thoughtful comments regardless of a particular position about Obama or any other topic.
“If those are the comments we’re surfacing, [Sidewiki] wouldn’t be that much different than much of the web. What we’re really trying to do is add value from people who really know what they’re talking about,” he said.