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Digital Pharma: Reacting to sidewiki

Published on 18/11/09 at 10:26am
Dominic Tyer
AstraZeneca's Google sidewiki entry

Over the last two months pharmaceutical company websites have been plagued by unwanted, un-moderated comments thanks to Google's sidewiki.

The search giant's universal access comment tool allows anyone to post anything on any website, and a handful of people have taken up the challenge to do just that on pharma sites.

Sidewiki was launched on 23 September and so far discussions about it have tended to focus on what to do if a sidewiki entry is posted on your site.

Sadly this somewhat misses the point, because the corporate websites of the vast majority of top-20 pharma companies have been steadily accruing a number sidewiki entries.

So there are comments shown on Pfizer.com, GSK.com, Merck.com and so on. And it's not just pharma's corporate online presences that have been affected - disease awareness sites, product sites, even sites hosting pharma press releases have been similarly blighted.

But, finally, there was some action on the issue from one pharma major when AstraZeneca recently posted a sidewiki entry on its corporate site (first spotted by Mark Senak on his Eye on FDA blog).

Moreover they used the webmaster's right to claim the first entry and made it long enough to push subsequent sidewikis off the first page.

AstraZeneca says in its entry that sidewiki comments are not monitored and won't be replied to, and it links to various alternative ways for investors, journalists and the public to contact the company.

Truth be told this is the minimum pharma needs to do to address sidewiki, and the need for this kind of response has been obvious since sidewiki first emerged.

Nonetheless, AstraZeneca are to be applauded for being the first to get there - and being able to get IT and communications departments to agree on a plan of action.

However, it doesn't address sidewikis on their other sites, among them AstraZeneca.co.uk, Simply4patients.co.uk and Ethicspoint.com, highlighting the challenge pharma faces.

What to do about sidewiki

Until recently pharma's sidewiki entries have mainly been posted by one blogger, looking to challenge the industry to respond to reports of bad behaviour.

Clearly, given the sort of sums of money pharma companies spend on their corporate and product branding, this is damaging - but it could be much worse. The industry does after all have some far more venomous critics.

I've characterised AstraZeneca's approach as the bare minimum pharma should do, but I don't mean to damn them by faint praise.

Pharma companies have multiple corporate, product and disease websites of their own and to police all of these and respond to comments would be simply be untenable. But to add a generic disclaimer entry, as AstraZeneca has done, at least shows you're aware of the technology and have a policy on it.

As was noted at last week's FDA hearing, the industry can't be expected to monitor and react to every website that mentions companies and their products, but these aren't just any websites, these are the companies' own ones.

For my money, sidewiki so far appears closer to virtual graffiti than anything else, and its technological requirements mean that it is not yet wholly visible.

But just as you wouldn't dream of leaving graffiti on your bricks and motor headquarters, neither should you ignore what is put on your online homes.

WHAT IS GOOGLE SIDEWIKI?

Google sidewiki is a free browser sidebar that enables you to contribute and read helpful information alongside any web page.

It's available in English and 12 other languages, including German, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese and traditional Chinese.

To use sidewiki you need to have Internet Explorer (6+) or Firefox (2+) and then install the Google toolbar.

But anyone using Safari, Chrome or any other browser can still see sidewiki entries because most sidewikis come with a direct link to them.

Moreover, Google has thoughtfully included sharing options for Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and email, as well as creating a direct link for each entry.

So, if there is a sidewiki entry on your website it can be quickly shared online before you're even aware of it. My sidewiki entry on Pharmafocus.com looks like this.

A person's sidewiki entries are listed in their Google Profile and you can embed YouTube video into a sidewiki entry.

Google has more information on sidewiki here, instructions on how to install its toolbar here and the lowdown on claiming the first sidewiki entry on your site here. This video demonstrates how it works (and the value it is supposed to bring to the web).

Dominic Tyer is web editor for Pharmafocus and InPharm.com and the author of the Digital Pharma blog. He can be contacted via email, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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