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Google Toolbar's AutoLink & The Need For Opt-Out

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AutoLink is new feature in the new third version of Google's popular Google Toolbar that's raised controversy since it was released last week. Why are publishers upset? Can they block the feature that adds links to their web pages? Who rules over content, users or publishers? Why do I think Google should give publishers an opt-out for the feature. That, and other issues, we'll explore in this article. It's a long one, so the links below will let you jump to particular sections, if you prefer.

How AutoLink Works

Let's start by revisiting how the feature works. It's only available to those using the Google Toolbar 3 beta. Existing Google Toolbar users have not automatically had this feature added, so the number of people currently AutoLink-enabled is small. It will grow, of course, when the toolbar comes out of beta and takes over as the main one offered to the public, something likely to happen in the next few weeks.

Currently, AutoLink only reacts if it spots four types of information on a page:

  • Package Tracking Numbers (those currently supported in Search By Number for regular search results)
  • US Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs)
  • US Addresses
  • Publication ISBN numbers

Below, I've inserted two examples in the article so that anyone with the AutoLink-enabled toolbar can see autolinking for themselves easily. The first is the book Web Search Garage by Tara Calishain with its ISBN number shown. The second is Google's address:

Web Search Garage
Prentice-Hall, August 2004
ISBN 0131471481, $19.99

Google Headquarters
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043

If you have the AutoLink-version of the Google Toolbar installed and come to a page like this one with such "trigger" content on it, you'd hear a little "popping" sound familiar to anyone who uses the Google Toolbar currently, when it blocks a pop-up window from opening.

The AutoLink button in the toolbar also lights up or goes active, changing from "Not Active" to "Active" as shown in the illustration below:

When active, you can push directly on the button or use the little drop-down arrow next to it to get a menu, as shown with the "Drop Down Box" example.

Whether you push directly on the button or use the drop-down option, in both cases, links are also added to the page, making them look like this:

Web Search Garage
Prentice-Hall, August 2004
ISBN 0131471481, $19.99

Google Headquarters
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043

Click on the ISBN link, and you'll be routed via Google over to a page about the book at Amazon. Click on the address, and you'll be routed to that address shown in Google Maps.

Alternatively, use the drop-down box, select an option shown, and an entirely new window will open to display the AutoLink content. In contrast, with the links on the page, new windows aren't opened. Instead, the original window is replaced with the new content.

Don't like the links? Via the drop down box, you can use the Remove option to get rid of them or put them back using the Add option, if they have been removed.

By the way, earlier this week I found that using the drop-down box did NOT add links to the page. In fact, because I was using the drop-down box rather than pushing on the button, I at first didn't think links were actually added to the page at all. I talked with one other person who had the same thing happen to her. But in writing this article, that behavior changed for me.

Google says it's made no alteration to the toolbar behavior since it launched. Nothing has been changed on their end, the company says, and I should have always been seeing links added to a page whether I pushed directly on the button or chose the drop-down option. Given this -- and how corroded my IE installation has become over the past year or so (one reason I now use Firefox), I'll chalk it up to an oddity on my end.

The User Benefit

Google says feedback from users so far is that they like the feature. That's easy to see why. If you come across a page about a book without a link, as I showed above, it's very nice that you can get to another page with more information about it or the ability to buy it. Amazon fills that role nicely. I've often come across books mentioned on pages, then had to do the copy-and-paste routine over at Amazon in the way AutoLink helps make unnecessary.

Similarly, if you see an address such as on a corporate web site and would like to get a map, this is a handy way not to have to cut-and-paste into a mapping program.

The Publisher Benefit & Fears

Fair to say, feedback so far from publishers isn't so rosy. Yes, some think the feature is nice, such as prominent blogger Anil Dash has said. But from my review, he's in the minority. We've had other prominent bloggers such as Steve Rubel, Dan Gillmor and Dave Winer crying foul.

Closer to home for me, many search marketers who are also publishers clearly dislike the tool. At our Search Engine Watch Forums, the AutoLink & Google As Anti-Webmaster thread isn't finding many people in favor of it. The same is true for the New Google Toolbar Feature Rekindles the Old SmartTag Debate thread at WebmasterWorld.

Publishers do get a benefit from the tool. If they've failed to add useful links, those visiting their sites perhaps may come away happier that they were still able to leverage the information on the pages to get further information.

The publisher fear is far larger. Many publishers consciously decide what links they want to add. Having some tool come along and modify their content is simply unacceptable to them. That's especially so given how easy it would be for any tool to grow capabilities, such as making words into ad links that generate no revenue for them -- something that's happened in the past.

We've Been Here Before

There is a ton of hue and cry about how Google is trying to repeat a plan Microsoft abandoned after large outcry in 2001 called Smart Tags, which would have allowed words on pages to be turned into links. Which links and to where? That would have been determined by Microsoft.

By the way, a key developer of Smart Tags from Microsoft does now work for Google. However, rumors that he was involved with Google AutoLink aren't true. Google says he's involved in a completely different product.

Microsoft backed off from Smart Tags, but TopText from eZula went ahead later that year. It inserted yellow hyperlinks into pages -- paid links that earned eZula money but not the publisher. My Forget Smart Tags; TopText Is Doing What You Feared article from back then looks in depth at the system and the concern that arose over it. I'd strongly encourage reading it, because there are plenty of direct comparisons between what happened then and what's happening now.

eZula's still out there and apparently offering the same type of placement, but my impression is that the system didn't gain greater popularity due to search marketers who especially rallied around the late Jim Wilson's Scumware site to fight the program.

Why did search marketers care so much? They were footing the bill. Ads they placed with people like LookSmart got inserted into pages that they never actively chose. Many disliked this and made threads to their ad providers like LookSmart to stop partnering or lose them as customers.

Predating both the Smart Tags idea and TopText was Amazon's zBubbles and Flyswat, both from 1999. They came and went without any major outcry. Flyswat in particular inserted links on pages just as TopText did, Smart Tags would have and AutoLink now does.

I see now that some places like Symantec now class Flyswat as spyware, which sort of amazes me given that I thought the product long ago had died. I can't even reach the Flyswat site, but I suspect old installation copies are still floating around via download sites such as PC World (which offers it here, then offers an anti-spyware tool to get rid of it here). But at the time it was out there, Flyswat drew praise in many quarters as a great browser "helper."

Monopoly & Monetary Fears

Why was Flyswat largely acceptable, when only two years later, Smart Tags and TopText drew ire and today, Google AutoLink faces criticism?

With TopText, the answer is easy. Publishers didn't like the fact the system let competitors manage to insert themselves into their own content. Others who had purchased precisely targeted search ads weren't happy to discover that these ads were then in turn distributed to TopText for less precise contextual targeting.

With Smart Tags, it was the monopoly factor. Microsoft had such a dominant share of the browser market that letting it control how words would be linked was simply too frightening to many -- and this despite opt-outs the company decided just before the end that it would offer.

Enter Google. It, too, occupies a dominant role. We don't know exactly how many toolbar installations it has, but the company acknowledges millions of users. To be fair, Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer web products, told me that queries generated through the Google Toolbar are "by no means a majority of all Internet Explorer users" who access Google.

"With AutoLink versus Smart Tags, the toolbar is different is that its only installed by users [as opposed to automatically being part of the browser] and is by no means a majority," she explained further.

Even Microsoft blogvangelist Robert Scoble agrees here, arguing that Google can do things Microsoft can't because Microsoft still has a browser on 9 out of 10 desktops out there. Nevertheless, he was against Smart Tags and doesn't seem to favor the current Google implementation of AutoLink.

Monopoly or not, the toolbar clearly has many users. In addition, people like Winer fear that if Google is able to offer this type of feature, nothing prevents Microsoft and others from doing the same.

So with Google, there's a bit of the monopoly factor. I think there's also the TopText-like fear that AutoLinks could cost publishers money. If you have a page about a book, you might not want Google sending someone to Amazon to purchase it, especially without your own affiliate code.

As an aside, it's worth mentioning that there are other reasons why you might find advertising links inserted into editorial copy. Vibrant Media's been doing this for some time through its IntelliTXT service. However, the issue of publisher rights as with Google AutoLinks is not in question with this type of service. That's because the publisher themselves has chosen to add the links.

Instead, the issues are more about the practice from an editorial integrity standpoint, and yesterday's Ads Embedded in Online News Raise Questions article from the New York Times is just one of many articles to look at this.

Back to Google AutoLink, a remaining major concern for publishers is simply that they might not want Google sending anyone anywhere out of their sites via links that they didn't provide in the first place. There's a potential traffic loss people worry about, though Google doesn't see this as a serious problem.

"Are we really taking traffic away from them? Think about what they've [users] have done. They've been looking at the page. They've decided there's a piece of information on the page. They had to get the idea that they wanted to get more information some way. They clicked a toolbar button, and then they clicked a link. That's a pretty determined series of user actions. It seems to me that that user is going elsewhere anyway," Mayer said.

Future Development

What about the idea that Google might put ads links on pages? That's not something it does now, nor does the company have any plans to in the immediate future, it said.

As for those Amazon links, Google said it gains nothing from them. Amazon was selected because it was seen as the best choice for book information.

"Obviously Amazon is a partner of ours, but there was no monetary exchanges as part of this development. We picked out what we thought was the best user experience for things we linked to," Mayer said.

Don't like that choice? When the tool emerges from beta in the near future, it is definitely planned for people to choose some of the content providers they want to tap into. If you want links to Barnes & Noble for ISBNs rather than Amazon, you'll almost certainly be able to do that or pick from others.

How about the tool expanding the range of what's auto-linked. That could happen. Google's not saying what may or may not change, because the tool is still in beta -- a traditional style beta that should only last a few months at most.

It's possible, Google said, that if users push the button, it might decide that the toolbar should always automatically show links rather than make this a page-by-page choice users initiate. Or not, depending on feedback.

New features could also be added or removed. The company is interested in link enabling anything that someone might have to cut-and-paste to get existing information from Google. For instance, enter a stock symbol into Google right now, and it links to you stock data. Potentially, stock symbols could be turned into AutoLinks.

Couldn't any word be made into a link? Sure, but that would be too much, Google says.

"That goes a little too far. We aren't interested in turning an entire page into hyperlinks. That's not particularly helpful to the user," Mayer said.

What's Acceptable & What's Not?

AutoLink also raises anew the philosophical debate of who ultimately controls content. "It's my content, hands off!," is a common theme that resonates with many publishers. What gives Google the right to start tampering with your page?

Google's response is that the users give them the right. The users want this tool. The users want to control how they view that content.

"It's important to recognize that the toolbar is installed by people who want Google-enhanced functionality," Mayer said. "I would argue that the user is adding the link to the page. Google just provides the tool."

That's a pretty forceful argument. We don't hear many objections to the fact that users can control font sizes as they like, for example. Google's open source program manager Chris DiBona goes through a litany of more things like this in his personal blog post on the issue, Oh, please.

It's easy to add more. I've heard plenty of praise for various Firefox browser plug-ins that can do special things to pages when they spot certain types of links or the ability to restyle entire pages with Firefox. Why is Firefox so praised for enabling users but Google suddenly seen as evil for doing the same?

Indeed, this isn't the first time Google has interacted with publisher content via its toolbar before. The ability to highlight or jump to words on a page are widely praised. But more dramatic was the addition of a pop-up blocker in June 2003. That not only prevented some web sites from doing what they wanted to do, but it also arguably cost some publishers money through the blocking.

Wide-spread criticism? Hardly. I've seen a few grumblings from time-to-time that Google might be blocking commerce and publisher intent this way, but the praise over the pop-up blocking feature has been enormous -- and mimicked by other search toolbars. My guess is that publishers didn't fight back more against this because it was clear how hated pop-ups where by consumers.

Drawing The Line At Links

So where is that line when a tool gives a user too much control -- or better, when a user is given control that a publisher ought to be able to counter? I agree with many others that adding links crosses it. I don't care if the user thinks adding links to my pages will make things better for them. As a publisher, I want to be able to override a tool that tries this.

Legally, we don't know where publishers really stand on this, as the recent Google toolbar move raises online ire from News.com examines. But forget legal.

Instead, adding links is a line that I think any respectable software publisher shouldn't cross. Last year, Google introduced a set of software principles that are all about protecting the user experience. An addition to those principles should be made to protect the publisher experience, as well.

Provide An Opt-Out!

In this case, I think Google should provide an easy opt-out that publishers can implement to block AutoLink. Some others want AutoLink to be opt-in -- that Google shouldn't be able to do anything like this unless publishers explicitly say they should.

I think that's too far. Users do have rights. They have installed this software. Opt-out gives any publisher seriously concerned with the tool the ability to control it on their site. Many won't be concerned, so requiring an opt-in is overkill that does hurt the user experience.

It's also somewhat hypocritical to demand Google do an opt-in for this tool when virtually no one demands an opt-in about being crawled. Why that isn't demanded is pretty clear. People want in Google because of the traffic it will bring them. But being crawled is another form of messing with content.

For its part, Google doesn't want to do an opt-out. The fear is that it will hurt the user experience.

"If you had opt-in or opt-out, that's overall a lot less useful," Mayer said. "If the links sometimes won't show because there's a publisher opting-out, that's bad for the user experience."

Explaining further, she said:

"It's an interesting balance to strike, but we're going to weigh more heavily on the user side," Mayer said. "We think we struck the initial balance in a reasonable way. The publisher's page is seen as intended in the browser. It's a user-elected action that changes things. Beyond that, we aren't driving all traffic to Google."

Google also feels there's a form of an opt-out in that it won't overwrite any existing links. Worried that an ISBN code might get turned into a link by Google? Make it a link yourself, and it will be untouched.

Indeed, when Gary Price first wrote about the AutoLink feature in Search Engine Watch last week, he used an example of going to Barnes & Noble to show how unlinked ISBN codes there got auto-linked through the Google Toolbar to connect people to Amazon.

That made Barnes & Noble into a poster child for many publishers about why AutoLink was bad. Look at how it put links to a competitor on the Barnes & Noble site!

It took the company about a week, but an opt-out is effectively in place with Barnes & Noble. As I wrote yesterday, all ISBN numbers on the site now have links to Barnes & Noble's own content.

It was probably an easy move for them to make, having a database-driven site. But for others, it could involve a lot of hard-coding. In addition, if Google adds new content types for AutoLink, then publishers have to go back and make more changes. Adding your own links to block Google AutoLinks is simply not an effective form of opting-out for many to use.

They're My Users Too

My response to the "protect the user experience" argument is pretty blunt. Too bad if it is harmed in this case, from Google's perspective.

They may be Google's users, but they are also my users as a publisher as well. If my visitors are upset that my site prevents them from using Google AutoLink, they can tell and lobby me directly. I don't need Google deciding for me what my users want on my web site.

Google would gain on the public relations front from offering an opt-out. Even better, I'd encourage them to lobby for a single standard type of opt-out that other publishers could support such as through a robots.txt file extension that works for everyone. That would be real leadership in the industry and in line with the software principles statement it started last year.

Turning The Tables

How about turning the tables? How would Google feel about programs that modified its search results. It's not even theoretical. We have tools that will strip out ads from Google because the user may not want ads. We have software that will add links to Google's own results (for more, see our forum thread).

"I think we'd need to look overall at the utility offered to the users. Can a good argument be made that those users understand what's going on?" Mayer said. "It would be hard for us to argue against user utility because those are the same metrics we're going to use in evaluating our feature set."

It's a change from when Google was asked about this in 2001, on what it thought of TopText adding links to its results. At that time, it wasn't an issue of it being OK if it helped the user. Instead, the Google wasn't concerned because there didn't appear to be much take up of TopText.

Still, things change -- and it's helpful to have a current view on where Google stands, especially if a competitor like Yahoo or Microsoft decides to add a feature to its toolbar that allows users to hit links inserted on Google pages to generate results from their search engines.

The Toolbar Area Itself Is Yours

I'd sweeten the pot a bit to encourage Google to give an opt-out. Personally, I only want it to prevent adding links to my pages. Want to display links via the toolbar? That's fine -- it's your toolbar, do what you want with it.

Wouldn't that mean Google might down the line start showing ads or content related to my pages in the toolbar. Yes, it might. But we've had tools do this sort of thing already (a new toolbar program from Searchfeed and EffectiveBrand just came out this week), plus free useful tools do need to be supported somehow.

I wouldn't necessarily like it, but if it's not interfering with my actual page -- popping things over my content, adding links but instead staying within the toolbar area, I'd live with it.

That's especially so as long as the user clearly knew what was happening in the toolbar. All the same arguments Google makes about the user having the right to do what they want, I heard the same from TopText way back when. But Google says its history of user disclosure on what the toolbar does is better, and I largely agree.

"You can just look at Google's track record as with the PageRank feature. We tell people it's not the 'usual yada yada' and we are very up front," Mayer said. "We make sure our users are really informed that something going to happen, because we want to have the trust of our users."

In other words, no one gets tricked into downloading the Google Toolbar. And the links aren't automatically enabled. You do have to make the choice to turn them on.

Nevertheless, I still don't want links added to my pages. But if someone wants to consciously choose to click on a button that makes new windows pop-open, it's hard to object.

Similarly, we have a long history of other tools being tolerated for showing related content, such as Alexa. Heck, for ages both Internet Explorer and Netscape had built-in "related links" functionality powered by Alexa that few ever objected to.

Alt-Click Away!

Another option for Google is to provide Alt-Click functionality in the way that the GuruNet helper application (now Answers.com, also once called Atomica) has long allowed. In this case, people can select a word, hold the ALT key and click with their mouse, which in turn brings up a page with more information about what's described.

This doesn't add anything to a web page, easing concerns about content manipulation. Indeed, Wall St. Journal writer Walt Mossberg, who rallied against Smart Tags in 2001, nevertheless loved GuruNet for letting him Alt-Click on words in his same complaint against Smart Tags and has continued to praise the GuruNet's Alt-Click feature in 2003 and 2005.

In short, Alt-Click is an easy way to provide the user who wants to make a conscious choice to act upon ISBN numbers, addresses or other content that lacks links with AutoLink-like functionality -- just without having to use the actual links that are objectionable to some publishers.

Google did consider this option, but links were seen as more intuitive:

"We talked about whether we should make this work like that or something else. But we think that if you're going to create a link, the ability to get to get to another page, the web already has paradigm for that. Right now, the link really does make sense," Mayer said.

Adding further, she said:

"The links that we add do look different. We work hard to help the user understand that this was a link added by the Google Toolbar, that it wasn't a native link. We do this through a mouse rollover that is visible when you mouse over the link."

From my end, the mouse rollover isn't enough, little Google color "bubbles" or "balls" added to the hand icon, along with link pop-up text that says "Google Toolbar AutoLink." That's because before you hover, these links look identical to native links -- and some people are just going to click rather than hover for very long.

A different color or a double-underline or something would help. But while I certainly agree that links are far more intuitive, whether they look radically different from native links or not, they simply clash too much with publisher rights, in my view, and at this moment.

Here's An Opt-Out

You don't have to wait for Google to provide an opt-out, especially in that it might never do so. Threadwatch describes a JavaScript blocking solution cooked up by Search Guild. Download the solution (instructions are provided), insert it into your web pages. The same Threadwatch thread is also tracking any new solutions that come up -- some new server-side ones have just been posted.

Meanwhile, an anti-anti-AutoLink option appears to also be out there for users who want to override publishers trying to prevent AutoLink. I say appears because it seems like a clunky workaround that I can't really understand -- and looking at the comments posted, some others don't get it as well.

I mention it mainly because it highlights how quickly things have become absurd. You have third-parties working to prevent AutoLink and potentially others working to prevent preventing AutoLink. It's a mess.

The user experience is hardly being protected by Google refusing to provide an opt-out. It would be much better for Google to provide an opt-out in a way that makes publishers happy but also lets Google report clearly to its own users if the publisher has blocked AutoLink from the site they are visiting.

After all, it's arguably bad for the user experience if they can't get cached copies of pages. Nevertheless, Google has long allowed web site owners the ability to opt-out of having pages cached, primarily it seems to avoid conflicts over copyright. Despite this opt-out, the cached pages feature has survived for years. AutoLink can survive opt-out black spots, as well.

Finally, just weeks ago, Google acknowledged that publishers should have MORE ability to control their links through the introduction of the nofollow link attribute. It's disconcerting to say the least to then have the same company assume a right to add links to publisher pages without permission.


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