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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.

11 Responses to “Google’s Latest Ambition: A Universal Commenting System For The Web”

  1. Sidewiki – Crabzy – same but less powerfull.
    I believe Sidewiki is nothing more than what offers Crabzy, and even less because Crabzy offers forum’s functionalities, where you can have dialogs, exchanges between users.
    I’d rather go to, but they both offer great value as this kind of service, if more developped, could really enrich the Web !!!!
    For everyone’s benefit !!!!

  2. Jordan Mitchell

    Let's just wait and see if they get any traction with this. There are a LOT more pages on the Web than people, and with maybe only 1% of users contributing at all, it will take *significant* adoption of Sidewiki for them to reach critical mass.

  3. Dave Chase

    Replace "Google" with "Microsoft" in the article and everyone would be screaming bloody murder as they did when Microsoft tried a loosely similar capability (i.e., a centralized feature spanning multiple websites). This is bad for the web. Google does much good but this time they have stepped in it.

  4. Robert Andrews

    So, annotation basically. As commenters have said, it's been tried since the mid/late 90s. But it tends to be browser-specific, which means it's never going to get mass adoption.

    Which is not to say this isn't something we should *want*. Unified web profiles and messaging is something we need to move toward, and it takes the scale of something like a Google or a Facebook (or a Microsoft Passport) to do that. There's more likelihood of Facebook Connect or Google Friend Connect executing this global comments idea thamn Google's toolbar.

  5. marqueymarc

    Nice to see this kind of thing resurface every year or two. Third Voice was a notable attempt in '99 and many more finely targeted systems have been built since, including Stickis by Activeweave, which I founded in 2005.

    We added the concept of ovelaying rich media comments on the page itself, and restricting visibility to a facebook "friends" like subset of subscribed users. Very useful, but never gained mainstream traction, like many web annotation systems before and since.

    Someday someone will crack this and make it simple enough, and I believe it will change the way we use the web pretty fundamentally. I suspect it wont be the text only and scattershot (everyone sees everything) approach described here, but great to see this being done.

    Can't wait for the one that sticks!
    Marc A. Meyer, ex-ceo Activeweave, Inc.

  6. This was tried before with Internet Explorer and it not going to happen. The privacy and profiling capabilities will scare people off. If someone has a strong opinion and they on different web sites, that pattern can be detected and that person will be a sitting duck.

    It is my impression Google, Inc. only want to contextual comments and not offer it as some service of benefit. But this crosses the line of contextual indexing and infringes on people right to privacy and freedom of expression.

    Back in the 90s during the dotcom boom, there were several applications designed to detect "penny stock hypsters" that crawled through Yahoo Finance Message boards, Montley Fool and Raging Bull and found serial posters who were marginalized once discovered.

    Commenting will have to be a decentralized system in order to spread freedom of speech and expression without fear of future reprisal.