Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Sidebar That Ate Your Website?

You've just spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours designing a great site to host your comic.

Now, suppose I come along and insert the contents of this blog, or anything else I want, directly onto your web page, as a sidebar visible to anyone with the Google Toolbar.

Or suppose I have some grudge, and I insert offensive or mocking material. The sidebar is part of your web page. Many people won't know if you meant it to be there.

Sites optimized to fit common screen sizes would be forced to surrender real estate, and unless they knew to use the toolbar to detect the sidebar, the site owner might never know it was there. People could insert links and deface the site you have paid to build, pay to host and own. Your bandwidth use may increase, and site speed may decline.

Here's what a made-up website looks like with a version of the sidebar, which is a new Google product called "Sidewiki."

Picture your full-page comic suddenly loosing a third of its space. And unless you police it or block it, you don't even realize it's visible to some visitors.

Here's a mash-up of how the popular webcomic Penny Arcade might look with Sidewiki, as before and after pictures. It's hard to predict how Sidewiki will affect the aspect ratio, so to reduce distortion, I've posted the "before" picture at slightly different dimensions than the "after" pic:

I'm not sure Sidewiki is going to be popular. Inserting barriers to usability is contrary to what web users want. It may be spammy. Not everyone has the Google Toolbar on a browser. I do, and sure enough, Sidewiki is now there. Presumably, others will want to install it not because they want the Google Toolbar, but because they want to see if anyone has installed a Sidewiki on their site, and if so, what it says.

Google includes provisions for outwitting abuse (e.g. links to X sites), but inserting unwanted content on my site isn't among them. Neither is surrendering a third of my real estate to strangers.

I'm having a really hard time finding positives for the concept.

Notice, too, the usability issue: the upper left page corner is where most eyeballs land first, which is why many of us put logos and site names there. Sidewiki shoves our stuff to the center/right.

Just when frames seemed obsolete, they are returning in new forms. Some are mellow: the new Project Wonderful browser allows you to view an ad host site and keep some PW links on the screen, and doesn't hide its origins. But I wonder where it would stop.

Here's a long blog post by someone who takes a darker view, but explains his thinking at length. He presents plenty of nuisance scenarios. For me, having one more distraction is objectionable enough, especially if it requires active intervention to block it.

This review is much calmer, presenting a patient, wait-and-see approach. It's closer to what I feel, but I like to be ahead of the curve, if only to keep abreast of new developments. The writer mentions an opt-in process, but the only one I know is for Google Analytics, so I'm researching it. Points off the original for not telling us where the opt-in is located.

I'll be interested to see if people start putting notices in their Terms of Use saying "Users are expressly prohibited from imposing third party frames on any page of this site."

Here is a form to share your opinions of Google Toolbar items with Google. I'm not rushing to judgment; the link is a courtesy.

Already, searching "Sidewiki Blocker" brings up products and developing resistance. Try it.

Do be wary of hype and fear-mongering. Simply be aware of this emerging development, stay informed, and decide at what point, if any, it crosses the line. Exploring negative outcomes doesn't mean I expect them.