Google’s Latest Ambition: A Universal Commenting System For The Web

A new feature on the Google toolbar — which is installed on millions of computers around the world — lets users comment about the content of any web page they visit; the comments are then visible to other toolbar owners when they visit that site (see screenshot to the left). Group product manager Caesar Sengupta tells us the company wants to “help foster and create communities around different web pages” and provide a functionality that is currently missing from most websites. While most every site that has editorial content offers commenting options, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is trying to bring commenting to other parts of the web — from Center For Disease Control pages on heart disease, where a doctor might have an insight to share, to informational sites on films.

But the feature, called Sidewiki, may anger some online publishers who have commenting systems of their own that they’d prefer visitors continue to use. Google is walking a fine line in its efforts to innovate in some areas that have long been the domain of traditional publishers, while not alienating them. Just last week, it introduced Google Fast Flip, a new user interface for online content that lets readers browse through web pages faster. It was widely seen as an effort to collaborate with publishers in order to upgrade the experience of reading news online.

Sengupta tells us that Sidewiki is “complimentary” since it provides additional features. The system, for instance, takes into account the “quality” of a comment in ranking it, which it determines based on how many people have voted that they like it, as well as how much the commenter has used Sidewiki in the past and the language he or she uses. (An ALL CAPS comment isn’t likely to show up at the top — if at all.) Comments can also be added to specific phrases on a site and show up when those same phrases are used elsewhere on the web. And because a commenter’s user name links back to their Google profile page, Sengupta says it’s more likely that comments on Sidewiki will be of higher quality. “It elevates the discussion,” he says. “People stop making trivial comments when it ties back to them.”

I asked Sengupta, along with product manager Aseem Sood, how they expected those publishers who already have commenting systems on their sites to react. Sood said that feedback so far has been “generally positive” — since there’s an assumption that Sidewiki will spur visitors to return multiple times to a site. “It gives (people) a reason to come back to a page,” he says. “I’m sure some publishers will have some objections to something like this but (at the same time) many traditional publishers also objected to blogs.” Google has no plans to monetize the comments by placing ads adjacent to them, he said. “Right now, our goal honestly is to increase the engagement of users on the web,” Sood says.