Brainstorms and Raves

Notes on Web Design, Development, Standards, Typography, Music, and More

Thu

24

FEB

2005

Neil Turner, of the popular Neil’s World weblog, reported last week about Google’s new toolbar feature that embeds links within your website content without your permission: Google’s new AutoLink toolbar feature. Although Neil doesn’t think it’s a big deal, outrage abounds elsewhere, such as at Slashdot’s Is Google AutoLink Patent-Pending By Microsoft? where this new feature is compared to Microsoft’s Smart Tags ploy in 2001.

In his article February 17th, Google Emulates Microsoft, Uh Oh, Dan Gillmor relays the similarity between Google’s AutoLink and Microsoft’s Smart Tags. You may recall that Smart Tags also embedded links within websites without owners' permission. After incredible public outcry, however, Microsft actually agreed to not add the feature for Internet Explorer at that time.

I Tried AutoLink to See for Myself

The Google AutoLink toolbar feature is currently still in Beta and only available for Internet Explorer for Windows. Although I don’t use Internet Explorer except for testing websites, I went ahead and installed this Beta version Google toolbar to try the AutoLink feature for myself.

I opened my business website after I installed it. The AutoLink on the toolbar changed its text automatically to “Look For Map” which I then clicked—here’s a screenshot of the AutoLink toolbar with the “Look For Map” feature.

At the bottom of my homepage is my business address, which Google’s AutoLink turned into a clickable link to its own Google map of my business location, as shown in the screenshot below (click the image for the full screenshot):

Google AutoLink with mouse hover over link

While a link to a map of a business location could be helpful, I’m strongly opposed to links being embedded within my website without my permission.

Whether those embedded links are added by Google, Microsoft, or anyone else, I feel strongly that it’s not OK to embed links within ANY websites without the express permission of the website owners. I don’t think anyone has the right to alter a website’s content by embedding links like this without the website’s permission. In addition, I can see the exploitation of this technology in far-reaching negative ways.

AutoLink’s Embedded Links Can Steal Away Your Business

Some websites are taking proactive measures to prevent the AutoLinks feature from embedding links within their websites, especially to protect their businesses. The bookseller, Barnes & Noble, for example, most likely after finding that Google’s AutoLink feature was embedding links to Amazon.com’s books for all of their books' ISBN numbers, has now linked all their ISBN numbers to their own website. Without this swift action, their online sales could plummet. See Danny Sullivan’s article earlier today about it at Search Engine Watch’s weblog, Barnes & Noble Overrides Google Toolbar AutoLink.

This underscores to me why I find Google’s AutoLink feature so outrageous.

What Can You Do?

Unlike Microsoft’s Smart Tags for which we could add a META element within our markup to prevent its use, preventing Google’s AutoLink requires adding or linking to some JavaScript on your own server, which is available via Threadwatch, Code for Fighting Google AutoLink [updated].

Be sure to also see Jeffrey Zeldman’s post yesterday, Protect your site from Google’s new toolbar.

Rumors: AutoLink Now Reported Not Written by the Smart Tag Creator

Jeff Reynar, an ex-Microsoft employee responsible for Smart Tags, was rumored to have been involved in Google’s new AutoLink feature, at least in part due to News.com’s article Tuesday, Old Microsoft ties to new Google feature. However, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch, spoke with at Google, which he wrote about in his post, Microsoft Smart Tag Engineer Not Involved With AutoLink. So, at least for now, it appears that Reynar hasn’t been involved with Google’s new AutoLink feature, even though he does work for Google now.

Update Feb. 25, 2005

See also my follow-up post, More on Google’s AutoLink Beta Toolbar Feature.

12:15 pm, pst24 February, 2005 Comments, Trackbacks (7) ·

Categories: Browsers, Development, Internet, Software

Comments

Comments, Trackbacks: 7 so far. Add yours!

  1. I’ve already said it all when Verisign tried their wildcard DNS: it’s a bad idea

    http://evolt.org/verisign_dns_wildcards/

    01:46 pm, pst25 February, 2005Comment by spinhead

    comment #1 permalink ·

  2. I certainly understand the argument that this feature gives the user more control. Like being able to highlight and write notes in a book. This however is a third party automated editor that arbitrarily adds this content—more like someone re-distributing your work with his or her own notes attached. I agree there may be copyright implications.

    My biggest complaint relates to providing good, well-planned web design. Cramming more content into a page, however useful, distracts from the existing content. We are constantly working with clients to provide just the right content in the correct context in order to avoid overwhelming the user.

    I hope this feature, like Microsoft’s before, falls hard.

    09:55 am, pst 9 March, 2005Comment by ladesign

    comment #2 permalink ·

  3. Thank you for your insight and information— I enjoy reading your material. Sorry for the long rant below, but it’s a viewpoint I hold which I don’t hear much about.

    So much has been discussed about Google’s new “Autolink” feature in its newest BETA Toolbar, but I can only remember one single, and brief, mention regarding Autolink’s potential impact on academic, government, legal, medical, non-profit, and scientific information websites and web-enabled online repositories. All Google’s efforts seem to involve commercial services and commercial benefits at some level, which is understandable for a commercial entity like Google; however, Google seems to ignore the fact that a great many of our society’s benefits are not driven primarily, directly, or even indirectly by monetary considerations.

    There are many millions of web pages (probably hundreds of millions) produced by organizations such as mine that have a mandate to produce authentic, authoritative documents. You know, that neat stuff they’ve got “over there” at NASA; that really useful report on licensed contractors at your state Consumer Protection department; the immense archives at the Library of Congress; helpful publications you may unfortunately find yourself needing from the NIH or the CDC on various diseases; those great government tourism sites you log onto every Spring, in anticipation of an exciting Summer getaway; the non-profit foundations and research organizations that provide analysis, research, and resources on a whole rainbow of topics; the really cool articles from science journals that contain the newest in scientific and technological research and discoveries . . . you get the idea, don’t you?

    Whether you are for or against Google’s new Autolink feature (or the earlier Microsoft smart tags) or any other specific third-party software that manipulates content producers' web pages, it should be discussed whether, as a society, it really is okay to “mix” or “remix” *ALL* varieties of information--the “users want it, so it must be okay” argument espoused by Google and many of its supporters, for whom “user convenience” is the (stated) driving force behind this technology.

    1. DOCUMENT INTEGRITY: IT’S REQUIRED

    For instance, “my” site contains thousands of pages of government statutes, regulations, and legal opinions that carry the weight of law (known as caselaw), and other information that, among other requirements:

    (1) must remain intact, as it has been created by a legislature or other mandated government authority;

    (2) must remain impartial in its presentation;

    (3) must serve all participants within a system (legal, medical, etc.) equally, regardless of who a particular participant is, what political ideology they hold, etc.

    Why must it remain intact? --To truthfully serve our “users” and not lead them astray, which results in effective and efficiently-running legal systems, medical practices, and more.

    Why must it remain impartial? --To provide the credibility required so that our “users” can come to trust us as a (or *the*) source of reliable, authoritative information and helpful service.

    Why must we serve everyone, without preference? --Because we are a *public* agency; our mandate is to serve everyone, without giving preferential treatment to anyone, but rather ours is to provide assistance and service fairly and equitably.

    For *any* software to add content (even in the form of links) to the content my agency publishes online distracts users from the true intent and value of the publication of that content and, in the future, could result in potentially unnecessary, lengthy, and costly litigation. One simple example: every single legal opinion on our site is a public document that carries the names and addresses of the attorneys involved, yet linking them all completely distracts from the true (non-commercial) value of the document and could (in the minds of our online customers) imply our agency’s endorsement of particular individuals and/or firms, which is neither our intent nor our right--remember, unlike a private sector commercial entity like Google, we’re mandated to be impartial.

    And if future “upgrades” to Autolink come down the pike, other “distractions,” potential “misinformation,” and inadvertant “endorsements” could show up on our pages unannounced. Will our taxpayers, our customers, know the difference? We’d like to think so, but many years of experience leave me very unencouraged in this regard.

    In addition, is it fair to citizens of this nation for agencies like ours that serve public, societal interests, and for those of us who work in these organizations, to be forced to spend time (and dollars) on “protecting” ourselves from private-sector encroachments like Autolink? I’m not going to give my personal opinion, but my professional opinion is that it certainly weakens our ability to carry out our missions as public, societal institutions since we now have to “protect” the material as well as simply creating it and making it available. The net result will be less content, and that goes against the inherent strengths of the web to serve our fellow human beings (and save money in these tight-budget days).

    2. PRIVACY POLICY CONFLICTS?

    Another problem: Google’s own documentation says, “Google may collect information about web pages that you view when you use advanced features such as...Autolink...” Now, some people would say this is spyware...some would say this is just unethical...yet others just see it as a part of “capitalism” and therefore, to them at least, it’s perfectly okay. Whatever you believe, at the very least this tracking of web activity conflicts directly with the privacy policies that many, if not most, government agencies must abide by. My guess is that it also conflicts with the policies of many other types of organizations as well. Legally, I don’t know whether this is a problem for us (I suppose only my Attorney General could tell me for sure).

    However, so many “users” won’t see any line dividing our pages from the “extras” that Google gives them, that it may create a problem for academic, government, legal, medical, non-profit, and scientific entities in the “user's” eyes--they’ll go to one of these highly-textual, information-rich sites with the expectation of (relative) anonymity, but will (through no fault of the sites visited) be tracked.

    Now I ask you: is it fair to people who have paid for a website (either through tax dollars or through charitable giving) to be tracked, spyed upon, in return for those dollars? Would you like it? Is it the worst thing that’s happened to humankind? --no. . . but it’s not nice, and it’s neither ethically nor morally defensible.

    3. MIND READING (wow!!) and RESPECT FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S EXPERTISE

    I have read in various accounts statements from Google to the effect that Google knows what users want and knows their online behaviour, so they can and should do this. I admire Google’s ability to read their “users” minds--this is truly legendary talent--after nearly 8 years developing a site and speaking with many hundreds of its online customers, I am still amazed at the various viewpoints from which so many intelligent “users” like attorneys, medical doctors, university researchers, etc. come--I myself would *never* be able to make a statement to the effect that “when a user comes to a [whatever type of] number, they’ll of course be ready to leave the site.” I am thoroughly floored that any human corporation, such as Google, can actually know *when* people will leave a site, and further that they have the educational and professional expertise in *every* situation to provide the *most* appropriate links for “users” to follow . . .really, truly gifted individuals these Google folks!

    In the worlds of academic, government, legal, medical, non-profit, and scientific publishing, in so many instances links are endorsements of the legitimacy of information *and of its pertinance in certain circumstances*. I know it might seem like heresy to some reading this, but I actually do believe that the publishers in those communities know better than Google what is legitimate and pertinant in a given legal case, a page on treatment for cancer, the intracasies of nuclear particle behaviour, and so on.

    As good as the folks at Google are at what they do (and they *are* good, we all admit that), they are *not* the very EXPERTS creating and publishing the billions of web pages that Google itself indexes.

    It is just plain irresponsible for Google (or any other “reputable” organization) to make changes to content where a seemingly innocuous change (from Google’s perspective, in this case) might have an unknown (again, from Google’s perspective) and potentially negative effect upon parties relying on a particular body of online information.

    I hope Google will reconsider implementing this and similar technologies; it’s a big mistake for their “users,” contrary to what they themselves may believe. Changes to such material might suit some “users” just fine, but as a responsible society we don’t let kids play with fire just because they want to--even adults cannot be experts in all fields of endeavor and should not, through this type of technology, be made to feel that they have the moral or ethical right to “remix” material for which they simply don’t have the authority, background, education, experience, training, etc.

    I don’t consider this attitude to be snobbishness on my part, and I am certainly not trying to put “users” down--I am a “user” too, and am comfortable enough with my own human limitations that I can admit that I myself am not necessarily an expert in medicine, law, science, or any number of other fields--I’ve got to have respect for those who *do* know about these things, those who have spent lifetimes gaining specific knowledge in specific areas, and to have confidence in their abilities and motives--we have ALL got to do that. If the integrity of the content they produce comes into question, then we will *all* in this society have a problem far bigger than Autolink. . . and if we cannot respect other people and value them for their gifts and abilities, we will lose our humanity.

    4. REWARDING THE BAD, PENALIZING THE GOOD?

    One last argument I’ve seen wielded in favor of Autolink-type technologies is the notion that if someone builds a site but doesn’t give you good links, then “we’re here to 'save the day' and provide a way out of this (lousy) site.”

    That argument seems to me to reward those who don’t build good sites and hurt those who do build good sites, the polar opposite of the service upon which the good Google name and reputation have been built. I frankly don’t understand this viewpoint; it seems to me to undermine the validity of the core service for which the whole world admires Google--it just doesn’t make sense.

    5. PLEA AND REQUEST

    I ask Google to remember that an important, sizeable, and significant part of the web consists of material that is beyond the scope of its own professional expertise--this viewpoint requires humility, but I think Google can handle the challenge of respecting the rest of the world’s contributions to the web as the rest have already found respect for Google’s own contributions. This material plays an essential (though often not directly commercial) role in making this a relatively safe, enjoyable, and desirable society in which to live. “Playing around” with this material for “fun and profit” diminishes its true value and is a short-term investment in the web--it *may* make money for Google and its stockholders, it *may* make some “users” happy because they feel a freedom and power that is near unlimited, but it won’t serve society’s deepest and most important human needs.

    I respectfully ask Google to remove the Autolink feature immediately, and further to develop no similar features in the future. Such features simply are too editorial in nature and diametrically oppose Google’s existing strengths.

    6. OPT-OUT: MY DEMAND

    As has been suggested elsewhere, IF Google insists on going through with this disrespectful scheme, then I would *demand* that Google provide a simple, reliable means for content publishers to "opt-out" of any Autolink-type features, something like:

    (meta name="GoogleAutolinkPreventParsing" content="TRUE")

    7. IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT GOOGLE

    In some cases, it really *is* necessary for the benefit of the “users” to preserve document integrity: you not only want, but you NEED, the “correct” statute, the “real” info on cancer treatment, an impartial guide to resources, etc. without the added commercial pressure of the pursuit of monetary gain influencing such important documentation and informational content.

    Publishers MUST have the final say in these types of circumstances: they are, after all, the experts in their respective fields and presumably that is why visitors to their sites are going to *their* sites for information. If it were otherwise, we could all just go straight to Google and nobody would need any “external” sites anymore, Google would have “all the answers.”

    Please Google, listen to and respect *all* of us who are part of a diverse, healthy, vibrant web.

    06:49 am, pst10 March, 2005Comment by David Sims

    comment #3 permalink ·

  4. In the previous issue of The Panama News, someone inserted these little green bars that link to some spam company out of Los Angeles. See, e.g., the little green bar under the travel link, which is a hacker’s work and not mine.

    I make my living, paltry as it is, by selling ads on my website. So now we have somebody stealing my services for free? And now Google is going to institutionalize this sort of theft?

    The dissemination of this technology is much akin to the sale of lockpicks. It’s a despicable raid on small Internet businesses by big bad Google, following in the retraced footsteps of big bad Microsoft.

    Moreover, when you consider that these companies are in the ad business, as relates to small media like mine, it’s a hardcore monopolistic practice. These big multinationals are stealing advertising from small third world businesses like mine, sneering defiance in the presumption that we can’t afford to sue them for the grab that they are undertaking.

    Eric Jackson
    editor and publisher
    The Panama News

    06:50 am, pst13 March, 2005Comment by Eric Jackson

    comment #4 permalink ·

  5. In my previous post, I mentioned that I didn't really get where Microsoft went with some of the aspects of...

    18 Mar, 2005Trackback from shwango! blog

    trackback #5 permalink ·

  6. When the topic was very recent and much spoken of i decided to add my 10 cents. I do like Google, but this kind of behaviour cannot be tollerated. Like Jeffrey Zeldman said : let Google at least offer some sore of meta tag to let an autor of a webpage decide if Google can modify 'their'(!) work.

    So, i created a nice and nifty button.
    To whomever is going to use it, please host it on your own server because the host i have right now isn’t all that reliable.

    Google Tagging II

    09:45 pm, pdt 6 April, 2005Comment by mstyle

    comment #6 permalink ·

  7. I bet everyone who complains about this new feature of googles uses a pop-up blocker, or some kind of ad prevention/removal system. This is exactly the same thing, modifying someone else’s website to suit your tastes is something people have been doing for a long time. Do you also object to the GreaseMonkey extension for firefox?

    You can’t have double standards, it’s not fair.

    06:32 am, pdt16 April, 2005Comment by xarius

    comment #7 permalink ·

This discussion has been closed. Thanks to all who participated.

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