Googles Tool Bar Links Stir Debate

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2005-02-18

Googles Tool Bar Links Stir Debate

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?

Page Two

No doubt Google is installing its technology in a different way than Microsoft did with Smart Tags. AutoLink is a feature within the Google Toolbar, which itself is an add-on to IE that a user elects to download. Microsoft had proposed directly including Smart Tags within the operating system and the browser.

Google isnt attempting to direct all the traffic to Google sites, Mayer said. In the one linking option where Google links to its mapping service, it also offers an option for users to change the default site to either Yahoo Maps or Inc.

For many Web developers, though, software-initiated changes to Web pages raise concerns. The addition of links on book ISBNs, for example, could compete with a Web sites own links to book sellers where the site owner may be receiving a share of any revenue from sales, said Matt Reider, a Web and new media consultant based in Victoria, British Columbia.

Reider runs a travel site called, where he includes links to a range of affiliate partners including a Canada-based online bookseller. AutoLinks addition of links to could steer visitors away from one of his revenue sources, he said.

"Its difficult because on one hand as a user its a useful feature, but as a Webmaster you dont want people or programs overriding or overwriting your Web page," Reider said.

Reiders bigger concern is that Google could expand beyond ISBNs and add AutoLinks to commercial products, for example when the word "iPod" appears on a Web page, and divert users to its Froogle shopping site or advertising partners.

But Mayer said that Google selected the third-party links for AutoLinks based on the reliability of the providers. For AutoLink, Google has created no formal partnerships or revenue-sharing arrangements, Mayer said.

In the tool bar beta, AutoLink links to for ISBNs, to United Parcel Service of America Inc. and FedEx Corp. for package tracking, and to Carfax Inc. for VINs. Mayer said Google is likely to allow users to configure the links to third-party sites in future releases of the tool bar.

"Our relationships with copyright owners and publishers are incredibly important," she said. "It was as a result of a respect for copyright and publisher rights that we made this an elective feature."

Despite Webmaster concerns, Googles feature appears to be focused on improving the user experience rather than on taking control from Web publishers, said Allen Weiner, a research director at Gartner Inc.

In any case, he doubts that users will find too much value in using AutoLink in its current implementation. The feature does not always insert links on addresses, depending on how addresses are formatted on a page, and the number of Web pages listing ISBNs, tracking numbers and VINs is limited, he said.

"I call this a work in progress," Weiner said. "They believe that they are offering a convenience to people, and I think its all a proof of concept and is part of Googles mode of trying out a bunch of things."

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