What Google’s Sidewiki Means for Corporate Reputation Management – Part I

“You are surrounded. Come out with your hands up.  We are in complete control of your brand. Resistance is futile.”

No, this isn’t a direct quote from a legion of tech-savvy consumers. But it expresses the fears of businesses everywhere since Google debuted Sidewiki as a part of its browser toolbar several weeks ago. Just as soon as the press release hit the wires, we began hearing from our clients. Was Google really allowing anyone to make public, uncensored comments in the browser right alongside their Web site? Could any hater with a grudge and a Gmail account really sound off without any moderation whatsoever?

The simple answer is yes. Google is not simply “allowing” this. They are enabling it and even encouraging it.

The feeling that corporations were no longer in complete control over their brands really began in the 1990s, when anyone with a Web site could post whatever they dared. Then came community forums, bloggers, Wikipedia and a certain type of restaurant diner that Tweets or Yelps about anything that approaches poor service. This chart demonstrates a chronology of online sites or tools, with relative corporate anxiety in correlation to each.

Sidewiki: Should We Care?

To put Sidewiki in perspective, the only reason people care is that it is produced by Google. It isn’t a replacement for Twitter, Yelp, Facebook or a multitude of crowdsourcing applications. It just isn’t that great.

For consumers, Sidewiki has no real advantages in interface design, features or community participation than any other open medium (unless you really are a grudge-holder, since it does provide immediate gratification similar to spraying graffiti on a store front that one can’t get from Twitter, Yelp or vertical directories). For business owners, it is not a useful medium with which to communicate with customers openly. Those tools already exist elsewhere. It is in fact incredibly inconvenient. Corporate customer service and PR departments already have their hands full monitoring Tweets, Yelps, blog postings and every other possible channel.

So why do we need to pay attention? Because the Google toolbar makes Sidewiki accessible to anyone using Internet Explorer or Firefox to browse Web sites. While the majority of Google’s myriad products do not achieve mainstream success – and consumers may end up not liking it – Google Toolbar gives Sidewiki a solid delivery channel. We’re not betting that it’ll be the next Twitter, but it shouldn’t be ignored.

In our next installment, we’ll offer some tips for monitoring Sidewiki and managing expectations around it.



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