Google Toolbar Keeps Controversial Linking Feature

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2005-05-12

Google Toolbar Keeps Controversial Linking Feature

Google has kept a controversial Web-linking feature in the full version of its browser-based toolbar released on Thursday.

When Google first released Google Toolbar 3 three months ago, it faced a storm of criticism from Webmasters and publishers who were upset about a feature called AutoLink.

AutoLink can turn a Web pages references to addresses and package tracking information, books and vehicles into hyperlinks to other sites.

AutoLink remains a key part of the full toolbar release, though Google has modified the feature to give users more options for switching the default sites for the links.

Google also has shifted the color of inserted links to distinguish them from other links, a company spokeswoman said.

The latest version of the toolbar upgrade is currently available as a download for Internet Explorer browser.

Google plans to push it out to current toolbar users through automatic update over the next few weeks, said spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez.

Googles changes may not be enough to quell critics of AutoLink.

Steve Rubel, a vice president at CooperKatz & Co. Inc., was one of the first Webloggers to criticize AutoLink.

He said that Google has failed to address the biggest problem with AutoLink—its lack of an official way for Webmasters to opt out of having their content altered.

"It sounds like they ran to first base but are far from running home," said Rubel, who writes the Micro Persuasion blog. "[AutoLink]s real now, and they didnt listen…Its still unfriendly to Web publishers."

Asked why Google decided not to offer an opt-out option for publishers, given AutoLinks controversy, Rodriguez referred instead to user reaction to the feature.

"Were continually focused on improving and enhancing our users experience on the Web, and we have received a positive response from users regarding the AutoLink features," she said in an e-mail interview.

The debate over AutoLink largely revolved around the issue of who should control the appearance of Web pages and the links on them.

AutoLink opponents have argued that Google has gone too far by inserting links, some of which could send users to sites that compete with their own or interfere with their linking arrangements with other sites.

Did Google overstep its bounds? Click here to read an opinion on AutoLink.

In previous interviews, Google executives have stressed that they are only giving users more choice. AutoLink does not add links unless a user clicks on a toolbar button to initiate the feature.

Next Page: AutoLinks options expand.

AutoLinks Options Expand

In the newest release, Google has expanded the number of options for AutoLink, including another tie-in to its own services.

Users already could choose among three online map providers—Google Maps, Mapquest and Yahoo Maps.

For book links, inserted when publication ISBNs appear on a page, Google now lets users select among, the default, as well as Barnes &,, the WorldCat library database and its own Froogle shopping-search site.

As far as links on the VINs for vehicles, Google added AutoCheck as an alternative to CarFax.

To Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Watch, Googles tweaks to AutoLink focus on adding more user options while ignoring the concerns raised by Webmasters.

During the height of the AutoLink controversy, Sullivan was among those urging Google to provide an official way for publishers to block AutoLink from inserting links on their Web pages.

"In the end, the people who operate Web sites are users, and the people who operate Web sites fund Google," Sullivan said. "It would be nice if the people who operate sites were given some say in matter."

As part of its AdSense advertising program, Google syndicates sponsored listings and other ads to Web publishers and shares a portion of the ad revenue.

Google has argued that allowing Web sites to opt out of AutoLink would damage the user experience, Sullivan said.

But site publishers already have taken steps to block AutoLink, such as inserting JavaScript into their sites code to disable AutoLink, he said.

The forum site has posted code for blocking AutoLink.

"People will disable it whether [Google] wants them to or not, and it would be a better user experience if Google allowed Webmasters to opt out," Sullivan said, noting that with an official opt-out process Google could explain why AutoLink isnt working on a particular page.

Beyond AutoLink, the newest Google Toolbar update adds other new features. They include the ability to check spelling on Web-based forms and to translate words from English to other languages.

Editors Note: This story was updated to insert a previously missing paragraph.

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