Will Googles AutoLink Go Far or Too Far?

Opinion: Like Microsoft's Smart Tags, the browser linking feature in Google Toolbar Beta 3 has the potential to be useful-or pernicious.

Its been said that if Microsoft is the operating system for your computer, then Google is the operating system for the Internet. That may be overstating things, but when Google starts changing other peoples Web sites for its own gain, I wonder if the two companies arent more alike than Google might care to admit.

But theres an important difference: Thus far, Google seems to be getting away with something Microsoft bailed on amidst huge controversy four years ago.

I am talking about a new feature in Beta 3 of the Google Toolbar. The Toolbar itself is an Internet Explorer add-on that makes Google Search and other features available in tool bar form. Its a useful piece of software if Google is your chosen search engine.

But the beta has rekindled the Microsoft controversy because of a new feature, AutoLink, which scans the Web pages a user views and will, at the touch of a tool bar button, turn certain types of information into hyperlinks.

The first incarnation will find street addresses and link them to maps; book publishers ISBN numbers will link to Amazon; car tag numbers to CarFax.com; and tracking numbers to the sites of major shipping companies.

Of the links, only the maps are configurable, allowing the user to choose which of several online map services will be used.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about the latest features of Googles Toolbar.

Google has not disclosed the business arrangements that underlie a companys inclusion as an information provider to the AutoLink service. If cash hasnt changed hands already, Ill bet Google will soon be getting transaction fees based on how many customers are sent to the linked sites.

To many, AutoLink sounds useful. So whats the big deal?

Well, back in 2001, Microsoft pulled features quite similar to AutoLink from a beta version of Internet Explorer. Microsoft made the move amid a firestorm of complaints sparked by Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg.

The major difference between the two services is that Microsofts "Smart Tags" were automatic and pointed users to MSN, while Googles AutoLink is semiautomatic and points—where?

Well, we dont know where AutoLinks will eventually send us, though "the highest bidder" would be consistent with the Google business model.

The reason people freaked out in 2001 was fear that Microsoft would use its browser to send customers preferentially to its own MSN services for information widely available elsewhere. Smart Tags developed the odor of those companies that make their money by covering one Web sites advertisements with those of the advertisers competitors.

Microsoft was accused of hijacking other peoples Web pages and using them for its own gain. Googles AutoLink does essentially the same thing.

Next Page: Smart Tags, Autolinks and copyright issues.