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On your virtual doorstep

Sidewikis mean your site could be ‘invaded’ by unsolicited comment; scenario plan now, says Neil Crump from Aurora 

The quiet release of the 'sidewiki' by Google on September 23 has the potential to change the rules of online communications. A piece of social media wizardry that comes with the latest version of Google toolbar for Internet Explorer or Firefox browsers, sidewiki allows anyone to 'contribute helpful information to any page on the web'. The key thing to understand is that, as a site owner, you cannot control what people post – whether you want to or not. Thus, the sidewiki has important implications for all of us, which we need to consider immediately.

While still in the early days of use, sidewikis are starting to appear all over the web, including comments alongside corporate, disease awareness or product-specific sites owned by pharmaceutical companies. In addition, sidewiki comments are coming up on Google searches.

Sidewiki allows people who have a Google account to post instantly comments in a browser sidebar alongside any page on your website, which you cannot moderate or delete. The comments are permanent, unless deleted by the poster or they violate Google policy. For example, Google policy states that there should be no spam or pornographic content, nor comments that have been reported as 'abuse'.

Shared comments
Any comment can then be shared easily with a link to Twitter or Facebook, or by email. It is important to note that you need to have the new toolbar downloaded from www.google.com/sidewiki to see the comments and you can click through to read the Google profile of the commentator.

This means that anyone, including healthcare professionals, patients or carers, now has the ability to share anything they want alongside your website. For years, people have been able to write what they want on the web, but the difference now is that the sidewiki comments appear directly on your virtual doorstep. This could have major implications for many things, including pharmacovigilance.

The good news (it's important to find some silver lining to this storm cloud) is that this latest development has appeared on the scene in time for inclusion in the assessment of the PM Society Digital Working Group. The recommendations will be ready by the end of November 2009, submitted to the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) for review and, hopefully, included in a revised ABPI Code of Practice.

Steven Gray, the code compliance expert who is leading the working group, said: "The pace of change in social media is phenomenal and the group is working hard to provide clear, workable recommendations to help keep pace."

So, until we have clear guidance on pharma engagement, what should, or even can, be done? First of all, it is important to understand what sidewikis are and consider the implications. Then, it makes sense to plan a scenario for all your online assets and consider your options. Should your approach be proactive, reactive, or should you just ignore it? In my view, the latter is not recommended.

A proactive approach is based on the fact that, as a Google-verified site owner, you are entitled to have the first comment on a specific page. In theory, this means you could post a disclaimer regarding posts and state that, as owner of the site, you are not monitoring them.

By doing this, you can permanently hold the primary position for the sidewiki associated with this page and will never move from this position (you would need to do this for every individual page of your site). A potential downside of this is that it could attract a comment.

Being reactive to a comment would obviously mean only acting once a comment is posted to which you need to respond. Regardless of the approach, an organisation will need to have worked out what content requires a response, what should be said and from whom it should come.

Currently, there is no off-the-shelf monitoring tool to inform you (as the site owner) when a sidewiki is posted against a page on your site. You will need to check each page of a site on an ongoing basis. Google has released a code that will form the basis of monitoring tools – so ultimately this will be available.

Blocking
There has also been discussion on the web about ways to block sidewikis on a site by preventing people with the sidewiki enabled being able to view the site – an approach that is not 'authorised' by Google. The trouble with this is that attempts to do this to date have been easily hacked and no one knows how this might impact Google rankings on a search.

So is the sidewiki a flash in the pan and just a gadget that will be used only by geeks? Who knows, but many social media commentators think that this is a game changer that will force individuals, companies and whole sectors to engage in ways they haven't had to before. So is this Google offering just a mindless spray can to graffiti the web, or a well-meaning tool that will democratise it? The jury is out, but it is certainly something we need to understand fully in order to consider the actions we may take.

The Author
Neil Crump is managing director of Aurora
To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

12th November 2009

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