Google AutoLink, Meet Butler, Which Enhances Google Results

Upset about Google AutoLink, the new Google Toolbar feature that adds links to web pages that it feels are appropriate? You might try a new tool created by Mark Pilgrim that inserts links on Google's own pages (NOTE: Updated below with comments from Mark Pilgrim). Via Boing Boing, news of his new Butler Firefox extension that among other things:

  • Removes ads from Google pages.
  • Inserts links that let you do web searches on competing search engines directly from Google's results.
  • Get news results from news sources beyond Google.
  • Get similar links to "alternative" sources for image and shopping.
  • Removes image copying restrictions from Google Print.

For example, in a search for cars, Butler inserts this at the top of the Google search results:

★ Try your search on Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, AlltheWeb, Teoma, MSN, Lycos, Technorati, Feedster, Daypop, Bloglines

And below news results listed, it says:

★ Find more news at Yahoo News, Ask Jeeves, AllTheWeb, MSN, Lycos, Technorati, Feedster, Daypop, Bloglines

To use it, you need to have the Greasemonkey Firefox extension. Once that's installed, you can then go back and install the Butler extension. Once activated, it can be disabled without actually having to uninstall it, should you want to play with the tool from time to time.

The usefulness of the tool is clear. It's very handy for the searcher to have. Given this, it would be hard for Google to object to the tool especially after Google's statement in my Google Toolbar's AutoLink & The Need For Opt-Out article on how they'd react to tools that added links or perhaps stripped ads from their search results:

"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?" said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer web products at Google. "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."

In that article, I wrote my view that when trying to balance desire of users and rights of publishers, tools that added links to pages went too far if they didn't provide a publisher opt-out. And that's main main issue with Butler. While it's giving Google a taste of its own medicine, by rights, it should be letting publishers also opt-out of having links added. And that means Google as a publisher should get that right to opt-out of Butler.

Will an opt-out be added? Would that be added if Google did the same for AutoLink? Pilgrim actually responds that his creation wasn't made as a way of pushing back at AutoLink. He emailed me:

I couldn't care less about the AutoLink hoopla, except that it gave me the idea for Butler. I think anything running on my computer should be under my complete control. I say this as someone who publishes content for money (although it's not my primary income).

Look, I run ZoneAlarm Pro with highest sensitivity and all advanced options enabled (including popup blocking). I run Proxomitron on top of that, and AdBlock and FlashBlock on top of that. These tools don't block ads by accident; they come pre-configured with specific knowledge of specific ad servers. Butler is just another ad blocker.

As for the "try your search on" feature, I am old enough to remember that Google used to offer this feature themselves. Back then it was "try your search on Altavista, Hotbot, Lycos, Excite, etc." All the popular search engines of the day. The point is, linking to competitors makes Google more valuable, not less. They seem to have changed their attitude about that as they've added more and more services of their own.

Google as a whole is becoming more and more of a walled garden, which is ironic, given that they started out in the business of sending people away. Now they take every opportunity to keep you within their walls. This might sound like a good idea in a Powerpoint slide deck, but it will kill them in the long run.

None of this answers your question about why I wrote it. Honestly, I wanted to teach myself Javascript and DOM scripting. I'm a geek, not an activist. I spend a lot of time using Google's services, and with the AutoLink faux-crisis still brewing, it seemed like an obvious choice of project.

As for a Google comment on the new tool, I've got a question in to them. In the meantime, some related reading:

  • Ok, Ok, I lied [I fired my butler]: From Jonas Luster's blog, this post against Google AutoLink follows the metaphor of AutoLink as a butler, but one that isn't necessarily acting in the interest of his employer. So Luster fires his butler, Google AutoLink.
     
  • A New Butler For Jonas: While Pilgrim isn't positioning Butler as a slam against Google AutoLink, his colleague Sam Ruby does make that connection that this is an example of an open source push-back against Google's tool, one that anyone can potentially modify and change. From my view, the fact that it is open source doesn't make it any more acceptable to me as a publisher. I still want an opt-out. Be sure to read the comments below the original post for some interesting discussion.
     
  • Want a line? Here's a line: From Yoz Grahame is referenced in the above Ruby post, and Grahame comments on that. At issue is his attempt to draw a line about when content-modification is acceptable. He argues that Google AutoLink is in the spirit of his definitions of being acceptable because users understand it, it isn't automatic, it can be limited by the user and it's in the spirit of the web.

My own view is that trying to come up with some type of universal guidelines for content modification tools isn't going to be successful. I think there's going to be a variety of lines that we draw over time, and those lines might even change over time. But for me, right now, adding links is a clear and simple line we can start with. If you make a tool that adds links to a page, you should give the publisher an ability to override that feature.

How could opt-out be done? SearchGuild -- which published the first widely-cited AutoLink killer -- is pushing a meta tag. No tool uses this tag right now, but they could. I'll expect to add the tags to Search Engine Watch soon just to show my support. More about the tag here: JavaScript to Kill Google Autolink.

All-in-all, Butler is just the latest example of the "mess" AutoLink created when it was released, as I wrote earlier. It came out, then we got an AutoLink killing script, a supposed way to kill that script, now a tool some will use to fight back at Google plus heaps of bad PR for Google continuing.

Two years ago, the company pulled the related searches feature that its own AdSense publishers hated within 48 hours. We don't need months more of testing AutoLink for Google to realize it needs to make some significant changes to please publishers and not just the usual noises of always considering feedback. Let's get on with an actual solution, starting with an immediate opt-out.