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Google just launched a new feature that works in conjunction with its toolbar. Called the “SideWiki”, it allows ANY visitor to make a comment on ANY site. At first glance, I thought this was a really innovative feature that would expand the experience of internet searchers and would allow for an interactive experience on any website or page.

For some searchers, there is a real benefit added. Imagine, for example, going to a company’s website that you’ve never heard of before. You’re not sure if you can trust it, but you are able to read comments by other site visitors who comment on the service or products offered. Just as we trust our friend’s recommendations, comments on a website could sway visitor’s decisions to purchase. For the website owner, these comments could help to improve the site and also provide valuable unsolicited feedback. Bugs and errors could be reported, questions could be asked and answered by visitors and all of this information could possibly be posted on the site, increasing the overall value to visitors.

However, just after a few hours, there are already some serious concerns. First, there isn’t any way for the site owner to control the comments on the page (other than being able to create a permanent post that appears above other entries or blocking visitors who use sidewiki altogether). That presents a potential PR nightmare. Going back to our imaginary example, you are now the site owner. Knowing that people can make any comment on your site, without moderation, suddenly seems as if you’ve got an angry mob in front of your house. What can you do when a dissatisfied client (of which most companies have at least a couple) decides to go on a tirade on your very own site?

In a real life example, a well-know Marketing expert, Seth Godin recently posted on his blog promoting a new service. It was rather controversial post and it was a perfect opportunity for most savvy internet marketers to express their opinion with this new medium. Even though comments were turned off on the post, those in disagreement with the post were still able to voice their arguments. Here are a few examples:

“Back away from this idea, quickly, please

It’s not a “neat” idea to do something for a brand without asking and then effectively try to exploit $400 per month out of them. To me, what you’re pitching seems right in there with domain squatting.”

“This is strange

And I’m not even sure it’s legal. I reeks of arrogance, desperation and ignorance of basic reputation management principles. Why swim with sharks for the low, low price of $400/month when there are plenty of other avenues for brands to maintain messages and dialogue with customers?

Smart brands will ignore this effort.”

I personally am scared about the direct effects of having customers post any comment they want on my site, but I also see the benefits. Ultimately, a good site will have good comments. I think every site will have at least a few bad apples, but these comments will allow me to know immediate responses to posts and changes to a site, allowing me to react faster to potentially damaging situations. For example, Seth posted the following blog post in reaction to many of these comments.

Regardless of how you may feel about the feature, I strongly recommend installing SideWiki to monitor your sites. If you don’t listen to what is being said about your business, there could be some serious damage to your brand and your business.

For a full list of features, you can visit the Google support page, or Search Engine Land’s article