Paving the Road

If you haven’t seen it yet, Google launched their latest project, Sidewiki, this week, to a somewhat rancorous reception. Sidewiki uses the existing Google Toolbar to park a comment panel next to any site in the browser window. The site owner can’t control it, and Google hosts the whole affair from their own servers. As of this writing, sites can’t even opt out of it.

The problems with this are myriad and ugly. Jeff Jarvis quickly dispatched a post covering the salient sticking points. (And, appropriately, there are good issues being raised in the comments.) I’m in agreement with Jarvis and others that this is an all-around bad idea.

Chalk it up to a failure of empathy.

Firstly, comment traffic is prized by many site owners. Especially those who take pride in the conversations happening around their content. Had Google wrapped their heads around this point of view, they might have foreseen how shifting the location and control of these conversations could be perceived as “stealing” something from site owners. The product (and the promotion of it) could have been adjusted accordingly, and fears assuaged.

Perhaps more importantly, Google seems to have failed to recognize how the audience’s changing notions about them might color this reaction. A company’s empathy for its users needs to be informed not just by its own sense of identity, but by whether that perception squares with popular sentiment.

Google might think users don’t have the right idea about their intent with Sidewiki, that these people just don’t get it this is so cool we’re trying to help them why do they hate it? But they need to remember they’re pulling in the kind of revenue that dwarfs the GDP of small nations now. With that reality comes an entirely different set of expectations about how they can and should behave. Simply by virtue of size and clout, actions formerly benign can now portend evil intent to the audience if handled badly.

Is that fair? Not terribly. Is that a psychological reality Google needs to recognize and deal with? Absolutely. Tone deafness isn’t an option. Not if they want to address the growing dissonance between how they think of themselves and what we see as users.

Good intentions aren’t enough for Google anymore. They just pave the road to, well, you know…