Google just released their newest foray into the world of ratings and reviews with their Sidewiki product. The first, and I think one of the most important things to consider, is that Sidewiki is only available for users who download and install the Google Toolbar. Although there are probably millions of people who have installed the toolbar, there are millions more who have NOT installed the toolbar, which means the overall impact of sidewiki will be somewhat limited.
So what is Google Sidewiki?
Basically, Google Sidewiki is a way of commenting on any site, any page on a site, or about any content on a site. When you use side-wiki, you have the ability to leave your comments and associate them with a website whether or not the website owner has enabled commenting. Since the comments are maintained by Google, there is no direct relationship with the website. Think of it as a virtual grapevine about your site. You can get more details about Sidewiki on the Google Sidewiki page.
What is the impact on Travel Websites?
My initial reaction to Sidewiki was “Great, a consolidated rating service for travel products”. In retrospect however, there is a fundamental problem with the Sidewiki approach. The main problem for travel (and presumably all e-commerce) is that side wiki is too general. The comments could be about the website, the products, the content, or even a completely unrelated subject. In a structured travel review site the products being reviewed are clearly defined. When you rate a hotel, for example, the expectation is that you will rate your stay at the hotel, the service, the condition of the rooms, and perhaps the overall experience. With Sidewiki, there is no expectation about what gets reviewed in the comments and no specific review criteria. Comments could even include recommendations by users to stay at other hotels and there would be no defense for the hotel other than to report the comment as abuse. Even then, I have my doubts as to what comments may be construde as abusive.
So what can you do about Google Sidewiki?
Take ownership of Sidewiki now. Set the tone of the conversation by being the first to comment on your site. Invite people to participate, but set the standard and expectations in the beginning. Add it to your daily check list of social media things to do, right after checking your brand on twitter and seeing how many new fans you have on your Facebook page. This is just another way to engage with your audience so don’t hide from it, embrace it and make it yours. When users leave comments, respond to them the same way you do on your blog or other blogs. Unlike TripAdvisor where you have to post a management response, the barriers to responding are much less rigid, just go ahead and do it. Because the visitor is already on your site, you have an opportunity to interact with them in a more meaningful way.
I am still unsure about potential search benefits for websites who have Sidewiki comments, but I suppose that will develop with time. For now, your best defense, as they say, is a good offense. Be proactive, set the tone for your sidewiki, and monitor it closely. It may take some time for the comments to happen but, like all things Google, they will happen eventually.