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Google to Web: Discuss Among Yourselves


Beware of the new application that opens up every web page for discussion.

On Wednesday, Google (GOOG) unveiled a new add-on to its Google Toolbar in which users are able to comment on any website they visit.

Dubbed Google Sidewiki, the feature opens a side panel where comments can be added and displayed, allowing readers to remark on an entire page or just a section -- as well as link out to other sites with similar information. And yes, the process is wedged onto sites where even comment sections are disabled.

Given Google's clout and renowned usability, Sidewiki is expected to excel in ways that similar bookmarking networks and Firefox extensions fell short -- which certainly gives bloggers and webmasters some pause. Sidewiki may usher in an integrated Web 3.0 dynamic, but opening up any and every website to user comments and reviews offers a unique set of issues.

Google is attempting to regulate Sidewiki's comments -- hopefully ensuring that a site on gardening tips doesn't become the YouTube comment section on a T-Pain video. Entries can be voted up or down for their usefulness and reported for abuse, but because anyone could be doing the voting, expect some wild flame wars to erupt beside articles covering controversial topics.

On the plus side, there will be no anonymous comments. Each entry will feature the user's name registered for a Google account -- even though fake profiles aren't exactly the most difficult thing to set up in Google. Accounts will be subjected to a quality algorithm which also determines how high a comment appears in a thread.

So, remarks that readers find helpful that are written by a well-reviewed user are likely to appear near the top of a Sidewiki panel. But that still might not stop organized efforts. Couldn't an extremely vocal minority that, say, believes the moon landing was faked band together and vote "The Real Truth About Buzz Aldrin's Lies" to the top on Wikipedia's entry for NASA?

Also, despite the inclusion of web-owner controls, Sidewiki promotes discussion about things the author had no intention of opening to discourse. Someone who recounts a long personal struggle over the passing of her father shouldn't have to find some jerk write "Haha, ur dads ded!" And anyone who's read the YouTube comment section on a T-Pain video knows that isn't entirely out of the question.

Web developers who have carefully fine-tuned the comment section already embedded on individual websites won't be too keen on finding discussions being relegated to a third-party web application.

What's the point of having an attractive feedback section when another just trumps it? And while they may appreciate the lack of anonymous flaming, when will the doubt start setting in that readers are now too intimidated to give any constructive criticism?

And there's no way -- no possible way -- that Google will be able to deter the amount of spam and spambots which have already started popping up in Sidewiki. It's only a matter of time before an advanced programmer exploits a loophole in the Sidewiki code and ensures "VIaGr4" is relevant to every single Sidewiki'd page.

At the very least, Google Sidewiki is a very intriguing prospect which could open up a new array of user interactivity and social networking -- maybe even permanently altering the content on sites which had no comment section.

Then again, maybe the majority of people won't want to install Google Toolbar.
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