Googles Tool Bar Links Stir Debate

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2005-02-18 Print this article Print

Webmasters and analysts question whether Google has gone too far in its latest tool bar release by adding its own links into Web pages.

A Google Inc. tool bar feature introduced this week is rekindling a debate over who should control what appears on a Web page—the sites creator or the software used to view it. Google introduced a feature called AutoLink in a beta of its next tool bar version. AutoLink inserts links into Web pages where an address, package tracking number, publication ISBN (International Standard Book Number) or VIN (vehicle identification number) appears in the content.
In the case of the address, the links connect by default to the recently unveiled Google Maps service. The others take users to third-party sites.
While Google billed the feature as an easier way to gather related information, some Web publishers and technology analysts were quick to criticize AutoLink. They compared it to Microsoft Corp.s Smart Tags technology that unraveled amid widespread criticism in 2001, saying AutoLink similarly changes Web content to the potential benefit of Google. Microsoft backtracked on its original Smart Tags plans for Windows XP after critics slammed the technology for directing Internet Explorer users to sites of Microsofts choosing with the addition of links into Web content. Microsoft later introduced Smart Tags, mainly for its Office suite. "Lets face it, Google is to the Web what Microsoft is to PCs—the operating system everyone uses to search," wrote Steve Rubel, a public relations vice president, on his widely read Micro Persuasion blog. "It has nearly the same lock on consumers share of mind … And millions use the Google Toolbar. They shouldnt get away with what Microsoft was unable to." An MSN program manager even chimed in on his Microsoft Developers Network blog, noting how Googles feature is generating less of an outcry and writing that he was "glad to see Google imitating one of Microsofts innovations from a few years ago." Google executives disagreed with the comparison to Smart Tags and said that Googles feature is substantially different because Web pages remain unchanged until a user initiates the insertion of links by selecting AutoLink. "I understand where people are drawing the analogy, but there are a few key differences," said Marissa Mayer, Googles director of consumer Web products. "One concern from Smart Tags was that the pages presented to the user were implicitly changed from what publishers wanted to appear…Because we have this as a user-elected action, to get smart links to appear users have to click a button." Click here for insights into Googles product strategy. But to Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research, the issue is less about what he called "subtle differences" between AutoLink and Smart Tags and more about the fact that Google is venturing into a technological approach known to upset Web publishers in the past. So far, he said, the Mountain View, Calif.-based search company has received less scrutiny for changing Web content than Microsoft did with Smart Tags. "I believe Google is sincere and at the end of the day is doing it to enhance the experience for users and to reduce cutting and pasting, but it does sound like an idea thats been tested before and rather resoundingly rejected," Gartenberg said. Next page: Will Google expand beyond ISBNs?

Matthew Hicks As an online reporter for, Matt Hicks covers the fast-changing developments in Internet technologies. His coverage includes the growing field of Web conferencing software and services. With eight years as a business and technology journalist, Matt has gained insight into the market strategies of IT vendors as well as the needs of enterprise IT managers. He joined Ziff Davis in 1999 as a staff writer for the former Strategies section of eWEEK, where he wrote in-depth features about corporate strategies for e-business and enterprise software. In 2002, he moved to the News department at the magazine as a senior writer specializing in coverage of database software and enterprise networking. Later that year Matt started a yearlong fellowship in Washington, DC, after being awarded an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship for Journalist. As a fellow, he spent nine months working on policy issues, including technology policy, in for a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He rejoined Ziff Davis in August 2003 as a reporter dedicated to online coverage for Along with Web conferencing, he follows search engines, Web browsers, speech technology and the Internet domain-naming system.

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