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.
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.
Smart Tags, Autolinks and
There are a variety of issues here, including trademark and copyright. Do these links effectively steal content and change it, thus violating copyright? And is creating links based upon a companys trademark a violation of the mark? Does it matter that users must install the linking software and, in Googles case, invoke it to create the links?
In the Microsoft world, Smart Tags remain a part of Microsoft Office, where they are used, among other things, to add Outlook functionality to Microsoft Word. In Word, Smart Tags look for names, addresses, phone numbers and other bits of information. When found, a light red line appears beneath the recognized term.
Roll your cursor over the underline and an information icon appears, from which you can click to select a variety of options based on the type of information that was tagged.
For example, a name recognized from your Outlook contact list could be used to create an e-mail or an appointment with the contact.
Back in 2001, I didnt think Smart Tags were such a bad idea. Microsoft had created an SDK (software development kit)—its still available—that allowed other information providers to create links to their sites from within IE as well. Thus, wherever a user surfed, if there was something on screen that could be linked to, the links would be created. And customers would get to choose the targets of this links. Dont like MSN? Turn off those Smart Tags and replace them with Google or Yahoo.
I was sorry that Smart Tags in IE never got a fair hearing. So I am happy Google has introduced AutoLink, again raising the issue of added links within Internet Explorer. My hope is that Microsoft will resume its Smart Tags program for IE, though Redmond may wait and let Google absorb the court challenges likely to occur.
Right now, Google has only a toe in the water and its hard for people to complain about the AutoLinks it now provides. Unless youre Barnes & Noble, I suppose. But Google has already been challenged for using brand names entered as search terms to generate competitive paid listings returned alongside the users search result.
Could this objection apply to AutoLink? It depends on the types of links the service ultimately provides. If it turns “Pepsi” into a link to Coca-Cola I am pretty sure there will be a fight. If Google sells these links the way it sells search terms, the potential problems multiply.
While I find AutoLink occasionally useful, I support protection of intellectual property. If you write and publish a Web page and attract someone to look at it, how much control should you have over what the user sees? Should a service like AutoLink be able to use your page to drag your customer to a competitors site?
Its not clear what the law has to say about this. And until we know more, automatic tagging and linking will remain under a cloud.