Google Sidewiki: I totally had this idea years ago.

Google SideWiki brings comments from users right to your browser.

Google Sidewiki brings comments from users right to your browser.

For those of you not completely glued to Google Labs or RSS updates from Google, there’s a new feature of Google Toolbar that’s found its way to Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers: Google Sidewiki.

Google Sidewiki puts everyone’s opinion or insights about a page right there with you on a site.  (To be honest, I’m pretty sure Google found some way to read my mind from 10 years ago and decided to implement the idea that I had, but I digress.)

Google Sidewiki can be used by visitors and site administrators alike.  If you’re the (verified) site owner, you can leave comments that are sticky at the top of the Sidewiki, which is very useful for getting feedback about your site, or prompting a conversation about your site.  However, if you have a blog or some feature that allows feedback on a specific article, it might be best if you promote that and let the user leave comments on that specific article, so the comments don’t get lost in the Sidewiki.  You can get a lot of great hints and feedback that will help better your site.  If a certain feature of your site is acting up, people would be more likely to leave a note in the Sidewiki as opposed to filling out the contact form just to let you know that something’s not working.  Any way that users can interact with your site will help you get return visitors.  So keep peoples’ Sidewiki comments in your mind when you make updates to your site.

To get the Google Toolbar (and in turn, have access to the SideWiki) you simply go to the Google Toolbar page and click the conveniently large “Install Google Toolbar” button.  Once it’s installed and you restart your browser, you can log in to your Google account and gain access to not only Sidewiki, but GMail, Your Google Bookmarks, and access to Google Translate.  Being a Mac/Safari nerd at home has made me miss Google Toolbar, but there’s a good chance I might sway to Firefox on my home computer with the release of Google Sidewiki.

Let’s Talk About How Awesome It Is!

I’ve always been a fan of reader interaction on webpages, whether it be posting on a forum, a chat room, or blog comments (*ahem*); however, those systems typically require a user to signup and can do so with a completely anonymous username.  With Sidewiki, you use your Google ID to leave comments on the side of webpages.  Google also gives users the ability to rate if a comment is useful or not, and if the comment is just spam, you can report it as abuse and Google will take action.  This is definitely a necessary feature because as we all know, spammers are out there trying to get their links to Russian Mail-Order Brides to as many people as possible.

I also really like how you can also make a comment specifically about one section on the page.  If there’s a certain paragraph or headline that I want to make a comment about, I can just pop open the Sidewiki, highlight the text that I wanted to comment on, and start typing my soliloquy about how Chewbacca is the greatest movie character ever.  It’s a pretty cool idea, but I am not sure how it will work when people make a comment on a news article on the front page of a site.  Once it gets moved to an archive, the comment won’t follow it, unless Google’s figured out some magical way to make the comment hook into the permalink of the page.  And if they’ve done that, then I’ll be completely flabbergasted.

Sidewiki also gives the ability for a verified webmaster (through Google Webmaster Tools) to post a comment and keep it pinned at the top of the sidebar.  I think it’s definitely a great idea for being able to welcome someone to your site and maybe ask for specific feedback on a certain element of the page.  Now, I may be biased because I have an affinity for all things Google, but this is definitely a step towards Google Wave which looks like it’s going to be the future of the Internet.

Relevance on Dynamic Content?

The main drawback I see to SideWiki is that there’s a big potential for an enormous amount of comments on a few popular pages which will dilute the usefulness after a while.  If there are some consistently “useful” comments on a page, and then the content of the page changes, those comments will no longer be relative but will still hog the top spots on the Sidewiki preventing the now relative comments from reaching the top.

What You Can Do To Help

As I always do, I recommend all of you check out Google Sidewiki.  It’s always fun to be an early adopter of some new technology and play around with it before it gets super bloated.  But most of all, you might have some awesome insights about a page or article that no one has thought of before, and you can be the one to bring it to the world.  So download that toolbar, sign in, and start sharing your opinions with all of the other users out there!

Aardvark: Where Search Engines Meet Social Media

Remember when the only way to get recommendations for restaurants or stores to go to was to ask a friend and hope they’ve heard something?  Now with search engine/social media crossover services like Aardvark you can expand your circle of recommendation givers to anyone viewing the site.

With Aardvark, users can submit a question via vark.com, Facebook, Twitter, AIM, Google Chat, or MSN Chat.  Recently released is an iPhone app (available for free in the App Store) that will let users submit questions, answer questions asked, and check out what your friends asked.  Aardvark relies heavily on IM services (and Push Notifications on the iPhone) to let you know when an answer to your question has been given, or if it thinks you’d be a good candidate to answer a question.  In your profile, you can set the topics that you’d like to answer questions about and the site will specifically recommend that you answer questions in those topics.  If you link your Aardvark account with your Facebook account, it will take into consideration your listed activities, interests, and groups and automatically tag you as willing to answer questions on that topic.  For example, Aardvark tagged me with: Computer Programming, Databases, SUNY Albany, and Video Games.

I mostly use Aardvark through AIM.  I’d say I get somewhere around 4-5 IMs a day from Aardvark with questions that are related to my tagged topics.  Some of them I didn’t know anything about (like Ruby on Rails) and Aardvark gave me an option of responding with “pass” if I didn’t have an answer, and in turn respond with “mute” to cease being asked comments about that topic.

"Does anyone have any recommendations for vegetarian eating in Albany, NY?"

My first search on Aardvark

Frustrations with a Growing Social Media Experiment

One of Aardvark’s claims is that it typically finds answers for questions within 5 minutes.  With my first test question (seen to the left), I didn’t really get any good feedback.  It took ten hours for me to get one reply, and it didn’t answer my question.  The answer I got talked about vegetarian restaurants in Ithaca, NY…a good 3-hour drive from Albany.

The downside of this is that the Aardvark notifications can get somewhat annoying.  Sometimes I’ll get replies saying “Thanks for answering the question” an hour or two after replying.  Not only that, but if I don’t reply to a question, I will get an IM five minutes later saying “Sorry, I missed you.  Can you answer this question?”  Somewhat tedious, but I can deal with it; thankfully, there’s an option to respond “busy” and it won’t message you for a few hours.

What’s in store for the future of Search Engines?

Could this be what the next big thing is on the web?  I really think it could be, and I’m pulling for it.  But at the same time, it could just be a flop if not enough people participate.  I suppose the same can be true of Facebook and Twitter, that if there wasn’t a huge social backing then they would have flopped.  But can Aardvark co-exist in a world with Facebook and Twitter?

As I said, I’d like it to, but my hopes and dreams might not come true; It’s got a lot to compete against.  Between hashtags and trending topics on Twitter, and groups and message boards on Facebook, is the social media-search engine hybrid already at its saturation point?  I suppose it’s good to have another option, but how many options are too many options?

Final Words

Having only been public since March 2009, Aardvark is still in its infancy, but with its awesome Facebook integration, its time in the limelight might come sooner than later.  I can’t predict the future, but I can certainly try to influence people to try out a new website.  So give Aardvark a shot: sign up, ask questions, answer some questions, and let me know if you’ve found any great vegetarian options in Albany!

Hey Ning – What’s up?

We have used Ning.com for a few client projects.  When working, Ning is a nifty site for setting up social networks with loads of features.  I’m a member of a few Ning networks outside of the office, and have had a good experience with it, as have out clients.  Anyone can set up a Ning site on a Ning subdomain such as yoursite.ning.com and start developing a community very quickly.  We have used a number of Ning’s pro services – using a custom domain, removing Google Ad Sense or controlling the ad content – to positive effect.  It can be free if you want it, and it seems to scale up to a professional site with ease.  The designs are customizable down to the CSS, and you can plug Google Analytics code to measure the traffic and usage.

The unexpected part can recently when this error began popping up when visiting Ning.com.

This webpage has a redirect loop.

The webpage at http://www.ning.com/ has resulted in too many redirects. Clearing your cookies for this site may fix the problem. If not, it is possibly a server configuration issue and not a problem with your computer.

The error is simple enough to clear up – just empty your browser cookies – but this could be a nuisance or a big problem for end users and community managers.  How many users actually take the step of reading an error message the first time it appears?  How many web companies, like us, have fielded calls from clients saying their Ning site was down, or misconfigured? While the error may be simple enough to resolve, it is surely a black mark against Ning’s usability.

I posted a message to Ning’s Twitter account (@NIng) this week saying:

@Ning How is your service lately? Some clients have asked about the downtime.

and did receive a quick response from Laura Oatning, a Community Advocate at Ning (@lauraoatning).  She spent some time troubleshooting the issue with me, although not to resolution.  The concern here is that users should not have to clear their browser cookies to visit the site.  My hope is that this is an isolated spate of issues, and is not effecting a larger group.  We’re about to enter a period of focus group testing on one of our client networks, and this is surely one of the issues we’ll have them monitor.

Gile Family Announces Shift of Focus to Growing Technology Properties, Finalizes Sale of Local Office Supply Business

Oldest, largest independent dealer in Albany sells to largest independent in the country

Albany, NY – Completing a transition which began in the late 90’s, the Gile family has today finalized the sale of its local office supply presence and will now focus solely on their technology offerings, which are headlined by WSG.net.  The R.J. Gile Co. Inc. office supply business was officially sold to W.B. Mason today.

The Giles will continue with the local operations of Web Services Group, Inc. (WSG.net), along with their other online retail entities.

Established in 1977 by Rick and Olga Gile as a typewriter repair and stationery shop in the back of their Troy, NY home, the R.J. Gile Company grew to be Albany’s oldest and largest independently owned office supply dealer.  W.B. Mason is the largest independently owned office supplier in the nation.

“We started with typewriters, rubber stamps, carbon paper and the like.  Today we service computers, networks and maintain dynamic web presences,” said Rick Gile.  “Keeping up with this shift and adapting to new technologies has helped us become the vibrant organization we are today.”

In the late 90’s, the Giles began diversifying their offerings, adding what is now WSG.net in 1996.  As the second generation of the family business, WSG is led by Rick and Olga’s two sons – Mike and Jim Gile.  WSG.net is a full-service provider of web solutions, IT consulting and network support, and web hosting.

“We identified a dual opportunity when our abilities as a design and technology firm began to flourish,” said Jim Gile, WSG’s Vice President  “We could offer world-class web and IT services to other businesses as well as being able to create and support our own internet stores to potentially compete in every market across the country and around the world.  It is clear that the present and the future of our company exist in the continued aggressive expansion of these offerings.”

Today, WSG serves numerous clients in the Capital Region and other markets in New York state and beyond, while Gile’s eCommerce properties, focusing outside the local area, now service customers in all 50 states, along with 22 countries.

“Our father’s mission statement at RJ Gile was always very simple:  Customer Retention.  He always taught us that what was in the client’s best interest was always in our best interest,” said Mike Gile.  “We operate WSG in this same manner, with an emphasis on our customers’ needs.”

Company Timeline

1977: Rick and Olga Gile open the R.J. Gile Co. Inc. office supply dealership in Troy, NY.

1989: R.J. Gile purchases Green’s Office Outfitters, Est. 1912.

1996: WSG is formed.  WSG began as an Internet Service Provider, but quickly transformed into a Web Development and IT Support firm with a strong focus on customer service.

1997: WSG and R.J. Gile move central operations to Colonie, NY.

2006: GileToys.com is launched, offering the sale of educational games and toys through its web site and various charity fundraisers.

2009: Local office supply business sold to W.B. Mason.

Is this WSG’s Favorite Video?

This video of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is our favorite, at least in the “Comedic Remix of an Unfortunately Exuberant Man” category.  Or perhaps it is only favored by me and our Creative Director Danielle McMahon.  Or maybe I’m the only one who likes it.  Whenever someone says the word “Developers” out loud I think of this clip.  Enjoy.  (A shorter clip from the original video is below.)

As Danielle says – “His voice cracking is soooo awesome!!!!!!!!!”

Mark Sanford Fail – White House Hopes and Web Sites go Down

Mark Sanford had a bad day today.

The Governor of South Carolina – a possible Republican Presidential contender for the 2012 election and a married father of four – had been the subject of national speculation and gossip over the last number of days for being completely out of touch with his family and his staff.  His family didn’t know where he was, his cell phone was off, and his staff was unaware of how to get a hold of him. As it turns out, he was in Argentina.  Why Argentina, you ask?  Well, today Sanford let us in on the secret.

In a nationally televised press conference today, Sanford admitted an extra-marital affair with an Argentinian woman, and said he’s resigning from his post as chair of the Republican Governor’s Association, but will remain as Governor.

Upon hearing the news, many folks (A LOT) must have done what I did – perform a web search on his name and then his wife’s name.  So much traffic was sent to www.SCGovernor.com and www.SC.gov that the sites were unavailable, at least intermittently.  SCGovernor.com returned only the message “Server is too busy” after a prolonged load time, while SC.gov appeared to flicker up and down.

If you’re keeping score at home – and I apparently I am – Sanford appears to have derailed his Presidential hopes and taken down his official government web sites at the same time.  One of these outages – the web site – is really not his fault, but South Carolina is clearly not prepared to communicate with their populations and the world via the web during big moments.  SCGovernor.com is not a site which receives much traffic on a regular basis.  Unless the site was taken down on purpose, which seems unlikely, the web host was not prepared for such a heavy influx of traffic.  Doesn’t bode well for usage of electronic communication as part of any emergency preparedness plan in South Carolina.  (A whois search reveals that the domain servers to be ns1.net.state.sc.us and ns2.net.state.sc.us, and the response headers indicate that the web server is a Microsoft IIS 6 server.)

The Alexa Web Information Service reports that SCGovernor.com is not a highly trafficked site, ranking well outside the top 100,00 sites.  I ran a quick comparison between SCGovernor.com and the official sites for two other high-profile Governors, New York’s David Patterson and California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The graphic shown here displays search visits over a one month span on SCGovernor.com, Gov.CA.gov and NY.gov/Governor.  The regular visits from web searches reaching the South Carolina site don’t even appear on the graph.

As he stepped up to the podium today, I doubt Sanford was considering how much traffic his web host could sustain.  What I would guess, is that he was fully aware of how quickly the news of his indiscretion would spread online.  Sanford and his communications staff would have done well to battle the web scandal wildfire which was set ablaze today by being prepared with a web-based firehose of their own.  Put the full version of events up on the web, make the full news conference available on-line, restate the important elements of the story in a clear, concise manner, and react to the speculation about impeachment and resignation or whatever else might require rebuttal.  Sanford lost the ability to amplify his side of the story on his official site, because he doesn’t have one (at the moment).

Folks – if you’re thinking about running for President of the United States, I would suggest getting a good web host.  But – as one person in the WSG offices said today – if the Governor of your state is sleeping around, a low quality web host might be the least of your problems.

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