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."
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.