Sidewiki: What's Pharma to Do?

Oct 28, 2009

On September 22, Google released a new version of its popular browser toolbar. However, this new version contains a social media tool called Sidewiki, a Web 2.0 tool that allows site visitors to leave comments on any Web page they are visiting—even branded pharma sites.

For the first time, there is widespread potential for consumers to “talk back” to brands, not just in a public way, but also in a way that gives user-generated content—positive and negative—equal weight to the brand’s Web site. Users can read what other people think about a given product or service. They even have the freedom to highlight specific sections and leave comments or more detailed information relevant to that particular interest.

Nowhere to Hide
For brands in the pharmaceutical industry, comments can have serious legal ramifications. Using Sidewiki, consumers can report adverse events attached to a marketer’s side effects page, and physicians can have off-label discussions right next to the prescribing information.

At this time, usage, and therefore exposure, is limited. But the clock is ticking. If Sidewiki’s adoption curve mirrors that of other Google tools such as Gmail and Maps, Sidewiki will soon be difficult for pharma to ignore. Pharmaceutical products from Pfizer have already received Sidewiki comments on their sites.

Normally responsive to consumer demand, Google has not yet given in to requests for the opt-out option that pharma brands seek. Immediately after launch, comments started flooding Google’s support forum about potential misuse and the opt-out feature.

Sidewiki will have consequences for any brand. But those consequences are nothing compared with what could happen to companies that are required by law to report adverse events or off-label use. Since there are no defined legal rules governing Sidewiki, companies could be required to monitor its use, even though the comments are not housed within the pharmaceutical company’s site.

On October 8, the issue of pharmaceutical brands and adverse events entered the discussion on the Google Support Forum. The comments followed other claims of infringement, such as the warning to Google that one firm “intend(s) to examine the legal ramifications of presenting our copyrighted content in conjunction with materials which are not authorized or licensed for use with our Web site…(We) intend to pursue Google as we would any newspaper or print media which does the same and with intent to recover damages and/or legal expenses incurred.”

As of this writing, Google has not responded.

Sidestepping Sidewiki
Until Google responds with an appropriate opt-out feature, it’s the responsibility of brands to decide how to handle user comments. Currently, there are different methodologies for working with Sidewiki, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.
These include:

Block the functionality. Savvy programmers have already begun to develop ways to block Sidewiki. These tools work, but Google can always work around them.

For instance, steved23, a member of the Google Code project, has created a tool called Sidewiki-defeat. This tool manipulates the way a Web browser sees your site’s Web address, tricking Sidewiki into thinking every visitor is viewing his or her own unique site. This works, but Google could modify Sidewiki to work around it. As an unintended consequence, no one has confirmed that these workarounds won’t affect a company’s search rankings.

There are companies, such as Sidewikiblocker.com, that have popped up offering paid solutions for blocking Sidewiki. For $27 they are selling a script that reports to disable Sidewiki on a Web site. The tool also works for any sites running Wordpress, a popular open-source blogging software.

At the extreme end, companies can modify server settings, most commonly done through an htaccess file. This blocks any users who have the Google Toolbar installed from getting to your site. Considering the number of users Google has, this is probably not the best option for any commercial Web site.

The best solution to block Sidewiki from your site is to redirect any visitors to a secure page. For instance, set up your server so that people visiting http://www.mysite.com get redirected to https://www.mysite.com. Most pharmaceutical sites already have secure certifications set up, and Sidewiki is automatically disabled on any page using one. For now, redirecting to a secure site completely disables Sidewiki without any modifications to the site itself. Users are already familiar with being redirected to secure sites when filling out forms or ordering products and are unlikely to be concerned with the change.

Contact Google or your congressman. Many forum posters have recommended flooding Google by reporting every Sidewiki post as abuse. There are more direct ways to get your point across. There are potential legal claims to be made against Google as they’re enabling user-generated content on a site that they do not control.

Google will most likely change their stance on opt-out functionality when they start to digest these legal ramifications. That they have not responded to these potential legal snares gives hope that this will soon come to a satisfactory conclusion. Until that time, it is important that the digital divisions of companies affected let Google and others know the significance of Sidewiki and the potentially disastrous impact of this feature on pharmaceutical sites.

Sidewiki is a unique feature for now, but more of these tools will be developed in the days ahead. While these quick fixes work in the short term, a better strategy is for pharma to reevaluate its approach to user-generated content writ large. A strategy of proactive management and engagement, while initially challenging, will pay dividends in consumer trust and advocacy.

On November 12 and 13, the FDA will be conducting a hearing on online drug promotion. Hearings on this subject have not been held since 1996, and the outcome of these talks will have direct implications for how pharmaceutical companies will be able to interact with the word of Web 2.0 and social media. Sidewiki could prove to be the first opportunity for brands to actively listen to and respond to consumers. Brands must learn how to manage and report adverse events and off label usage through these channels. Continuing to ignore this issue may no longer be an option.