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Sidewiki hijacks sites, puts reputations at risk, critics say

Dangers of Google review tool spark concerns from veterinarians

October 2, 2009
By Jennifer Fiala

A new Google tool allows Internet users to make public comments about the sites they visit, visible alongside Web pages, and the capability has Web site owners, including some veterinarians, anxious about the tool’s impact on their reputations. 

Google’s Sidewiki, launched Sept. 23, is a toolbar application that appears as a browser sidebar where those who download it can leave feedback about the Web sites they visit. It’s designed to rate a site’s usefulness or impart other helpful information with the most relevant entries displayed first, ranked via an algorithm that promotes value and quality, according to Google marketing materials.

Yet the platform comes with inherent dangers, critics say. Practice owners, for example, have little recourse against a reviewer whose negative rants could accompany a veterinary hospital’s Web site, with the help of Sidewiki. The impact of such a review could be damaging to a veterinarian and any other business or professional with a Web presence.

In short, Sidewiki could amount to a reputation nightmare. 

“If this Google thing takes off, veterinarians will get hammered by this,” predicts Dr. Matt Wright, a veterinary radiologist with a telemedicine practice based in California. “It’s like Google is allowing graffiti on your Web site. You lose all control. I really think Google has gone too far with this.”   

Wright and others have aired their concerns in a Veterinary Information Network (VIN) discussion, where talk of Sidewiki’s unintended consequences is a common theme in the thread.

In response, The VIN News Service (VNS) contacted Google offices to get reaction to Sidewiki criticisms but was met with recordings that Google offers “no live support.” Phone calls and e-mails to a company spokesman were not returned. 

“That’s what’s even more scary. They just don’t care,” Wright contends. 

With Google unresponsive at press time, VNS defers to online reviewers like accomplished journalist and professor Jeff Jarvis, who authored a book on Google, to get his opinion on Sidewiki. 

Quoting from his blog The BuzzMachine, Jarvis says Sidewiki “is wrong for the Internet, and, I’ll predict, bad PR for Google.”

Why? The seemingly uninhibited commenting functionality of Sidewiki paired with a lack of control over the appearance of such reviews that are featured alongside Web sites is a major problem, he says. But Sidewiki also “robs” Web sites of their value, pulling comments and interactivity away from them so that they appear on Google. 

Jarvis calls for Google to close the toolbar application. 

“Google is trying to take interactivity away from the source and centralize it,” Jarvis writes in a blog post. “It takes comments (that might otherwise appear on) my blog and puts them on Google.”

He adds: “It would enable sites without commenting functionality to get comments, including negative comments. ... I don’t think this was done maliciously at all. I think Google didn’t think through the implications.” 

Yet some who have reviewed Sidewiki doubt that the application will cause any real grief, reasoning that the tool is not widespread enough to impact anyone's online reputation. Furthermore, it’s not Web based. To access Sidewiki, users must download the new Google toolbar and agree to share their Internet activity with Google, a process that could scare off many.  

If a negative comment does surface, Google employs an algorithm that tracks sophistication of language and whether or not others found the comment valuable. In addition, Web page owners get first dibs on leaving comments about their sites, and Google displays those most prominently. 

Jarvis questions the capability of such a system. “Algorithms may be good at killing spam — albeit with syncopated delays — but they will not be good at policing the subtleties of trolls, prejudice, unfair competition, grudges, pettiness and hate; those are human sins and it takes humans (and perhaps God) to see them.”

Still, Sidewiki isn’t in a class by itself; others tools like it have lived in cyberspace for years and have not caught on with the masses. While Sidewiki is sure to get noticed with the Google brand behind it, insiders say it’s not guaranteed to gain any real traction. 

Dr. Greg Leck is a VIN Member and among those who do not foresee Sidewiki being a problem for veterinarians or anyone else with a Web address. 

“I don’t think veterinarians should be frightened by this,” he says. “I am a big champion of free speech. Every shoe store, every auto mechanic, physicians, art supply stores — we’re all in the same boat. Negative reviews have always been out there and will continue to be out there, and we’ll deal with it.” 

Leck points to Web sites like Yelp, which acts as a clearinghouse for business and service evaluations.

“These review forums are already out there, it’s just that now with Sidewiki, it will be in our faces,” he says. “I’d like to think that the average pet owner will look at these comments and be critical about them.”

But Wright argues that at least with Yelp, users must go to the site to read reviews; they don’t appear alongside a business’ Web page. 

“With Yelp, you can’t stop people from talking about your stuff, but you can stop it from being plastered on your house,” he says. 

Leck predicts that Google’s ability to police Sidewiki comments will determine the application’s success. 

“It’s yet another example of how the world is being flattened,” he says. “Anyone with a computer and a mouse can start to make comments and have an impact.”  

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.


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