Google’s goal of controlling and dominating the search world has stirred some new controversy with a new tool they have on their toolbar, called a Sidewiki.
enter the Google Sidewiki Controversy
What this tool bar does in a nutshell is…
- Allows users to make comments on anything they see on the web, whether it’s your websites or someone elses in a sidebar comment tool that Google controls.
- Allows Google to spider these comments in the Sidewiki and show them as SERP’s, that link to THIER links, not yours in the search results pages. (see examples below)
- Allows anyone to spam the heck outa the sidewiki until someone notices it and then reports abuse.
- Allows people to knock your brand or products without you controlling the content.
- Allows people to steer people off your site to THEIR site, by using sly comments to entice readers to go elsewhere to get a similar product or "better" product.
- Plus several possible legal problems down the road (I am no lawyer, but I smell problems)
Paul Meyers, over at: http://talkbiz.com/blog/google-steals-the-web/ adds to this sidewiki controversy which I think is important for serious web surfers to know so you can see what is about to happen with this tool when it goes viral and when it begins to be majorly abused by the bane of society – spammers.
We all know, with any new technology, the spammers always find a way to abuse it. Spammers will over tax people’s resources and servers by getting legit site owners to now have to police spam and malevolent content that hurts people or causes a bad user experience from people using Google’s Toobar!
I’d really like your dialogue about what you see here as "evil" or "not so evil" about this toolbar and sidewiki
I’ve included below Paul’s post from his blog:
Shortly after posting that last issue, I started seeing comments in various places about a new feature of the Google toolbar. It’s called Sidewiki. It allows people to post and read comments in a left-side pane in their browser, about any website they want. When opened, the pane looks like this:
That screen shot was taken September 30, 2009, and yes, it really is showing comments left by random surfers “on” Microsoft’s website.
Ain’t that fun?
What do you need to do to acquire this remarkable power? You must have a browser for which the toolbar is available (are there any it won’t work with?), install the toolbar, and have a Gmail account with which to associate the comments.
So, any 12-year old, and most adults, can manage it.
Without getting too deep into the tech, here are the basics of how it works: The Sidewiki pane is a separate “window” that can be opened in your browser, alongside the site you’re visiting. When you enter comments, they’re stored on Google’s servers, and displayed for other toolbar users when they hit the same site.
That’s pretty much all you need to understand in order to follow the main tech-based arguments.
I am of the belief that this system is abusive in the extreme. Before I get into why I think that’s so, let’s look at some of the arguments people make in favor of it.
The tech-based one is that none of the comments actually appear on your site. As I mentioned, they appear in a separate pane, which is opened by a program the visitors willingly install and use on their own computers. The first is technically true, but only in some cases, and the second is absolutely true.
Let’s do the second first: I am not saying that anyone should be stopped from installing this software if they want. I will say, however, that the fact that they have installed it does not give them license to do whatever they want with it, at your expense.
That would be like saying that, since people have FTP and web authoring software, they have the right to upload your products to their web sites and give them away for free. They can do that with their own products if they like, or products for which they have appropriate permission. But they don’t get to do it with just anything they happen to get their hands on.
That’s not a casual or unrelated example, as you’ll see later.
As far as the fact that this doesn’t actually change the contents of your web site, or appear directly on it, that’s technically true when you’re reading or posting them through the toolbar. Law and ethics don’t rely only on technicalities, though.
There’s this little thing called “the reasonable person” test.
When someone visits your site and sees those comments, they don’t see a separate location bar showing the URL of the Sidewiki comment. They see the URL of your site, which is what they typed in or clicked on, with a frame on the left that looks like part of your site. As far as the typical visitor will be concerned, that IS part of your site. Even if they have some clue of how the Sidewiki feature of the toolbar works.
Hey, the comments on your blog or forum are on your site, yes? You can control them if you want, right? How is this different, just because it uses a different tool?
If they see something there that offends them, they’re not going to blame Google’s moderation team. They’re going to blame you. They’re not going to believe that you can’t delete it if you wanted to, since “it’s on your site.”
Now, this is where the “technical” distinction between the comments being on Google’s servers and not on your pages gets really fuzzy. Take a look at this screen shot:
Look at the second link down. That is a Sidewiki comment that’s been indexed by Google. Here’s what you’ll see if you click on that link:
We could get into the potential for Sidewiki comments using certain keywords to significantly change the rank of various items on search engine results pages (SERPS), but for now, let’s look at a couple of other points.
First, consider that the keywords affected which page was displayed, and that Google has added a link to the resulting page promoting their toolbar. Keep that in mind for the discussion of how many people use it at any given time.
Secondly, there’s something that’s not obvious from that graphic. It is, however, very significant to the arguments about who can and can’t see the comments, and whether those comments are stored on your server or Google’s.
If you look at the link underneath the graphic showing the search results (second picture up from here), you’ll notice that the URL it shows is on Google’s system. That link pulls up the Sidewiki comments, in a frame that pulls the page from your site. Your content, Google’s domain, and comments from some random surfer.
The line starts getting real fuzzy, dunnit?
There’s been some speculation that Google plans to add advertisements to the Sidewiki panel, as a means to monetize it. There are some potentially significant legal arguments about that practice, if it were to come to pass. I’m not a lawyer, and am not qualified to address that authoritatively.
Besides, you’ve just seen a more significant ad, for the long term, in the example screen shot just above. Promotion of the toolbar.
Wait. That gets really interesting in a bit. Let’s deal with some other fun for now, though.
Consider the meaning of the word spam. There are two really common usages, and quite a few less common definitions. One, of recent vintage, is “messages I don’t want to be bothered with.” That’s not objective enough to be useful in an open discussion, but it does sort of fit. For us old-time anti-spam folks, it most commonly means “unsolicited bulk messaging.”
That last one works really well for email, forums, newsgroups, chat systems, IP blasters, Twitter DMs, unnatural manipulation of search engine rankings (an indirect, but still harmful, form), blog commenting, social networking systems, text messaging, and pretty much anything else that can be abused this way.
The basic formula is simple: Spam is uninvited broadcast communication.
The rest is just a matter of applying those terms to the channel in which the broadcast occurs. And, of course, the generation of endless quibbling by people who wish to exploit these resources to explain why their usage isn’t really spamming.
Spam, in its various forms, usually serves to distract the user from the original purpose of the channel, drown out communication, or divert the resource to the benefit of the broadcaster at the expense of the host or recipient.
Keep that in mind.
Some people have compared Sidewiki to a new social platform (which is only hinting at the near future), similar to Twitter or Facebook. They also point out that the same people who can now post comments on your site could as easily post them on a forum or other open discussion system.
Logically speaking, this is called an “EPIC FAIL.”
The most obvious problem with this is that the comments appear on a different site, not right next to your content. And, of course, the “web wants to be free” crowd says that’s the point. Forcing everything closer to “the source.”
Key word: “Force.”
As in, no choice.
Given that a big chunk of the web population that sees them will assume those comments are part of your site, (and even if they didn’t), this is significant. An external entity has created a system designed to effectively allow people to place uninvited broadcast messages on your system, with the potential to seriously damage your business or personal life.
That it also happens to be a cost-shifting means of advertising, via the search results, is secondary, but annoying.
Up to this point, I was planning on suggesting that Google had just set up to become potentially the biggest spam cannon on the planet, but that would be wrong.
They’re worse than that. Much worse.
At least email spammers pretend to give you a choice to stop getting their garbage. Some actually stop if you ask them. Google makes no pretense of offering an opt-out. There’s nothing in their system at this point that lets you say, “Keep your hands off my content.”
They’re hijacking your content, for their purposes or those of any random malcontent, sociopath, disgruntled ex-employee or bored 40-year old child, without so much as a “Stand and deliver.”
And there’s not a damned thing you can do about it.
So much for, “Don’t be evil.”
Mind you, I don’t think they intend to be evil. I really don’t. I think they’re mostly nice people who genuinely believe they’re doing the greater good, while looking out for their profits at the same time. (There is no inherent contradiction in that pairing, as any honest business person can attest.)
This is a classic example of group think gone wrong. It’s especially typical of organizations of Really Smart People. They tend to assume they know better than the rest of the world how things should be done. And, since they’re Really Smart, they often fail to check their assumptions against reality.
No. Not intentional evil. Just casual arrogance that has the same effect.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Evil is as evil does.”
That’s not the worst of it, by a very long stretch. Still, let’s stick with that for a bit yet.
The question at this point is probably: Why should you care about this? What possible harm could it do you?
Let’s look at the really obvious business examples. A competitor could post lies about your service or products, or post a link for your visitors to download (read: steal) your commercial digital products for free.
Or, perhaps, an angry ex-employee or ex-employer could post damaging comments next to your resume, true or not. Remember, these “wiki-notes” can be posted on any publicly accessible page on the web. (It’s not clear to me yet whether they could be posted next to a page on Linked-In or a similar password-required site.)
Or someone could try to blackmail you, under threat of posting – and continually reposting – lies about you.
Sure, Google says they’ve got “advanced algorithms” to remove abusive comments, and allow visitors to “vote” on whether a particular wiki-note is helpful or not. We all know that “algorithms” never fail, and voting is always fair and unbiased… right?
Nobody ever tries to game the system… do they?
Or they link to porn sites from your family-friendly children’s toy shop or religious fellowship forum. But hey, look at blogs. They never try that sort of thing in those places.
What? You never heard of spider food? Or decoy links?
Google says they’ll remove abusive comments if they get past the algorithms and are reported. That has two very real problems. The first is that they – Google and ONLY Google – get to decide what is and is not abusive.
Example challenge: Some “helpful” schmuck posts, “Hey. I’ve got a review of this and some similar systems at http://example.com. Check it out to see which will work best for you.”
Let’s assume the reviews even favor your product. (No need to get paranoid here, right?) Let’s also assume you paid Google for AdWords clicks to get those visitors, and the “review” site adds one small thing to the links: An affiliate ID.
You pay Google for the traffic, and Google creates a system whereby you end up paying an affiliate commissions for stealing your traffic?
But look at that theoretical comment. Do you really think the Big G is going to rule that one “abusive?”
Of course, all the links on that “review” site will be affiliate links. So, you might well be paying Google for traffic that gets hijacked to your competitors.
Yeah. Don’t be evil.
I predict a massive launch for an Internet marketing product called, “Sidewiki Siphon” by the end of the year.
Then there’s the problem of delays. No system allows for instantaneous response. Let me tell you how bad that could get, with an example of a situation that really happened. I saw the Sidewiki comment, and I saw the page it pointed to.
A gentleman I know is a really hard working guy, who’s busted his butt for more hours in a day than I ever want to work, for years, to provide a good living for his wife and daughter. I mean, 14 hours a day in the long term, building a business that’s based on providing value to his customers.
This guy has a medical condition that results in one eye pointing off at an angle that’s not even with the other. The picture he uses on some sites makes this obvious.
Some ignorant, malicious, psychopathic, deranged, bored, sadistic bastard of a man-child (sorry, but that’s the most polite description I can use and still convey the merest surface of my contempt) used that as the basis for a “wiki-note” implying that this guy was a pedophile.
On Sidewiki, right next to the guy’s own business web site.
If there’s any lie a person can tell online that warrants having a 6-inch hole put in them that the sun will shine through, that’s the one.
This… mindless, soulless, stupid creature told that lie for nothing more than his own amusement. Because his victim has one eye that didn’t track right in a photograph.
Google got rid of that one pretty quickly, but how much will their response time slow down as the service grows?
And how many people have to see that before it becomes likely that some gossip-monger latches onto it and it starts to spread, gaining a life of its own?
For a busy site… not too long, eh?
It should be mentioned that the creep in question makes a hobby of doing exactly this sort of abusive stuff, and has for quite a while. He’ll keep doing it until he gets sued into oblivion, or develops the aforementioned light-conveying orifice in his torso.
What kind of damage can that sort of thing do to a person’s business, when it’s shown to their best prospects? Or to visitors they paid to get from their AdWords budget?
“Don’t be evil,” indeed.
Here’s a facet of the problem that most people will never consider: It has been demonstrated in multiple studies that, once a person has accepted an idea or believes it is simply possible, that they hang onto that idea. Even if it’s been proved to be untrue.
If you tell someone something and they accept it as true, or even consider it possible, you can tell them flat out that it was a lie, for purposes of testing. They will still never get completely back to the “neutral” state they were in on the subject before hearing it.
While I’m not aware of any studies on this, since no sane person would attempt them, it’s likely that the effect would be even greater if the target were seen as directly associated with the lie. As in, perhaps, having it seen on the victim’s site, with them presumed to have the ability to remove it and not having done so.
Compound that with the average person’s fear of the unknown or unfamiliar, and it doesn’t take one of Google’s Uber-Geniuses to see the potential challenge.
Evil intent not required.
Here’s the thing: If it’s going to be off on some other site, most of these vicious children won’t bother posting it. They know it won’t be likely to be seen by anyone who can hurt their victim. And, when it’s on a site designed for discussion, they know that there’s a chance (often a good one) that the charges will be disputed by people who know the victim, and who are known to the other visitors.
Sidewiki completely changes that dynamic. Rebuttals are as likely to be seen as coming from invented people, as a matter of damage control, as they are to be viewed as legitimate responses.
And there’s no way to stop the attackers.
Come on. Any idiot with some focus and a few bucks can get hold of a script that will let them create hundreds or even thousands of Gmail accounts, with next to no effort. How long do you think it will take for someone to create a script that automates use (and abuse) through Sidewiki?
A week, maybe?
Ever had an angry ex-lover, or a vengeful ex-spouse? What could they post on your professional site, or a dating profile, or a job search site? Remember… it doesn’t have to be true. And it’s right there next to your content.
How about an employee that blamed you for his being fired? Or a crazed neighbor that wants to get back at you for some imagined slight? Or the customer from Hell, who got the product and a refund and still wants to hound you until you’re expelled from the human race?
Got kids? Have they ever been the target of immature abuse by bullies? How’d you like to see them slandered on their own Facebook pages? Or have some psycho post their names and addresses online, with the old “For a good time, call…” note next to them?
What kind of lies could someone tell about your kids that would cause them pain? Juveniles are really good at this. They’ll come up with much worse things than you can imagine on your own.
Let it stay up for 20 minutes next to a MySpace page, and it’ll be all over school the next day. Count on it.
If you don’t believe me, ask your kids. One well-timed message like this in the right place could be like an IM or a text message to everyone they know.
Here’s the kicker: This system is abusive even if it’s never used in such obviously destructive ways.
At the moment, Google fails to even offer an option for the site owner to refuse this web-spam.
Opt-out email is vile, but at least it offers, when real, the possibility of ending the abuse. And yes, many people will consider ANY messages displayed alongside their sites, which they did not explicitly endorse, to be abuse.
This is especially true of sales sites. Such distractions are death to any sales message, for no reason other than that they’re distractions. Include the fact that they’re on the left side (where people start reading), take up a big chunk of the screen, and probably don’t fit with the look of the main page, and you’re costing people real money.
Better hope they’re not getting those visitors through AdWords…
The ability for domain owners to opt-out is a minimum to avoid active evil. The real standard, when you’re talking about risking (or outright taking) someone else’s resources is opt-in. Only display the option to post, and to read posts, from sites that actively say they want it.
Hell, at least offering a working opt-out would raise them to the moral level of an honest spammer.
Don’t count on it, though.
Google is very unlikely to offer this as an opt-in program, which would remove 100% of the objections from site owners. It wouldn’t catch nearly as many fish, and there aren’t any laws directly forbidding what they’re doing at the moment. (That I know of, anyway. But then, I’m not a lawyer.)
First, consider that, in order to avoid the potential risks of this, you’re going to have to have the toolbar installed. (Read the TOS first. It’s a doozy.)
Then you’re going to have to monitor your sites – every single page, separately, every day – for abuses.
Who’s going to pay you for that time?
Can you say, “Unfunded mandate?”
I knew you could.
Here’s where the real fun starts. With 2 magic little words that explain it all: The Wave.
Google Wave is the Big G’s new social networking system. This upcoming event is why I’ve pretty much ignored the people who’ve dismissed Sidewiki as a minor evil, based on the fact that the toolbar is used by a relatively small fraction of the web population.
Do you think, for one moment, that Google’s social networking site won’t be tied in to their own toolbar?
It will take time, but you can reasonably expect 100 million or more (maybe many more) people installing and using that software. It will grow in direct proportion to the growth of Google Wave.
It will take over 1/4 to 1/3 of the width of what the visitor sees as your site, for all those people, in order to tie your site directly into Google’s social networking system.
This is the biggest land grab in history, and it’s your virtual real estate they’re grabbing.
Still think the title was over the top?
There’s a lot more I could go into here, but let’s hear your thoughts first.
Well, Paul… this was an awesome post and I appreciate your energy and thoughts put behind it. At this point, dialogue is good, but what can we do to make a voice heard that allows Google to actually listen in and fix things that are broken with their new sidewiki system?
Folks, post your comments, get the dialogue going, someone smarter than us will see this and help fix it!
Use the viral tweets, facebook stream and social media to carry this post into the websphere in a big way. Will you help me?