SideWiki is Cool, but Reports it Spells the End of PR As We Know It are Exaggerated

In a world where there is an exciting new web tool practically every day of the week, Google’s new “SideWiki” toolbar did not quite make the impact it deserved when it emerged about a month ago.

Effectively it answers all the people who have become so used to adding their comments on Facebook posts and newspaper articles that they feel frustrated when they read an old time one-way web page with no comment space. SideWiki adds a column on the left of any web page where users can write comments and read the comments of others. Though the idea is not entirely original it will be more successful than earlier attempts simply because Google is a strong brand and has a broad customer base.

When Sidewiki catches on it will be another useful way of interacting with websites, and I expect that it will soon become a standard browser feature, though there is likely to be a battle for control of this space because of the possibilities of generating revenues from ad space and paid links.


But some of the claims made for SideWiki are, perhaps, over inflated, especially the comment in today’s Guardian Newspaper “SideWiki changes everything. Google's SideWiki tool is the ultimate expression of people power” at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/nov/09/sidewiki-danger-to-pr

In this comment piece Mark Borkowski suggests that SideWiki will mean the end of PR as we know it. To quote his own words: “SideWiki will make it impossible to promote one message and not be held to account. Organisations that have traditionally engaged only in one-way conversations or broadcast models will struggle to survive in a SideWiki world.”

I am always dubious about claims like this. Remember when they said that Edison’s phonographs would spell the end of live music? When they said that TV would kill movies? Or that VCRs would kill TV? And I remember when media presented the newly invented steering wheel lock in the seventies with the prediction that it would spell the end of car theft.

Now I am the first to agree that web 2.0 tools have leveled the playing field and given consumers more opportunities to answer back, but I am not convinced that SideWiki will play a key role in this transition. Angry consumers can already strike back with their own “Product X Sucks” website, they can launch their campaigns through Facebook and organize opposition practically in real time through Twitter.


SideWiki, on the other hand does not actually give individuals the power they might expect. First of all there is the problem of comment ranking. A lone citizen voicing some concern is little likely to be visible when there are many comments by high credibility users. I am surely not the only person to see how this process could be manipulated by anyone with deep pockers; organizations faced with negative comments will soon master techniques for making them appear low down on the page. Secondly, the website viewer has to turn on these comments, and many will not bother to do so. And finally, you don’t need a doctorate in web site design to realize that there are simple ways to design a slippery website so that the comments can’t be attached to a page anyway. In other words it will be difficult to use SideWiki as a weapon against powerful enemies. It is more likely to become a threat to smaller companies and organizations and a tool in the hands of aggressive PR companies.

Long before computers were invented you could have organized a physical SideWiki service, placing a guy with a placard next to every outdoor ad, but for every placard you could afford Big Corporations could afford 100 ads. I fear that it will be the same in SideWiki. It can be a useful tool where the web page owner sees the comments as neutral to positive, but as soon as it becomes negative it will be neutralized. On the other hand there are plenty of other ways to engage with these corporations and savvy PR people have already adopted these. Perhaps there are a few dinosaurs out there who refuse to believe that Twitter is here to stay, but the asteroid has already hit their planet and they are on their way out.

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