The impact of Google's Sidewiki on online marketing

Googles Sidewiki enables users to comment on websitesand view other user commentsalongside regular content. Pharmas may not be amused.

When Google announced in late September that a new feature, Google Sidewiki, would allow users to post comments on websites, even sites that formerly did not feature commenting, it raised some red flags among pharmas. Branded websites are the most effective way to market drugs, a recent study from comScore Marketing Solutions found. What if anyone can skew the message through comments? What if anyone is able to post erroneous or sensational claims about side-effects or cures? Websites that are currently effective marketing tools could take a hit.

"Heres the biggest thing that scares most of our clients and the pharma industry as a whole," says Jim Dayton, emerging media director at Intouch Solutions, whose clients include Abbott, Teva Neuroscience, and Sanofi Aventis. "There are so many rules and regulations around what you can and cant put out there with a branded message. We have to consider fair balance, disclaimers, misinformation, off-label. So if people were to come along and put right next to that branded message whatever they want, theres no context for it. Someone can easily get the wrong interpretation."

According to Dayton, user comments have been a concern for the pharma industry for several years. The rise of social media and Web 2.0 platforms has made every reader a potential contributor. Until now, pharmaceutical marketers avoided the problem by not featuring comments on branded sites. But Google Sidewiki, which anyone can download and view as a browser add-on, has forced the issue.

The Sidewiki uses an algorithm to rank comments based on the sophistication of language (obscenities are prohibited), the reputation of the person posting (comments can be voted up or flagged down), and their history on Sidewiki. That means theres some method to the madness, but not the sort of exhaustive regulation pharma companies themselves have to follow for content.

Thus, some fear the potential for negative impact is high. If Google Sidewiki proves to be as thorny in practice as it sounds in theory, many pharma companies might shut down branded sites, rely more heavily on traditional marketing, or create whole new departments to handle comments. Already Pfizer has had trouble with its Viagra site. "This could easily become an avenue for activist groups and people who may or may not have the proper information to hurt brands," says Dayton.

"I can certainly see how [the Sidewiki] would have the potential to impact a companys control over its brand," agrees Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis at comScore Marketing Solutions, a consulting firm that studies online trends in advertising and Web use. But he cautions that theres no data yet and that, until there is, its pre-emptive to forecast a sea change in online pharma marketing.

"The first thing to consider is what the adoption rate is going to be like," Lipsman says. "Is this a service thats going to attain critical mass? And second, is a branded website the type of site thats going to elicit a lot of commentary? We have no idea at this point, and we wont be able to make any projections until we see what the adoption rate is."

Theres also no clear message yet from national authorities like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Obama Administration plans to hold hearings about user-generated content, social media, and pharma marketing in November. Until then, and until more information emerges about how and how often Google Sidewiki is used, pharma marketing agencies recommend that company-sponsored sites go into Google Webmaster Tools and "claim" the Sidewiki on their sites. That way, an official company post with legal, regulatory, risk, and corporate information will appear as the first comment.

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