Forget Smart Tags; TopText Is Doing What You Feared

TopText Is Doing What You Feared

Remember the hoopla I wrote about in July, where Microsoft's new operating system was going to have "Smart Tags" that turned words on web pages into hyperlinks that it or others could control? Bad press got Microsoft to abandon that idea, but it is in action now through another company's system.

Called TopText, the system from eZula causes yellow hyperlinks to appear under certain words on web pages, if you have the software installed. Which words? Any words that have been sold to eZula's advertisers.

As a result, potentially Coke could advertise so that any time "cola" appeared on the Pepsi site, the word would have a hyperlink leading back to the Coke site. Similarly, Ford could advertise so that the word "car" on any pages across the web -- including those at the General Motors web site -- would link to Ford.

The idea of third-parties adding hyperlinks to other people's web pages isn't new. Before Microsoft broached the idea, software such as Flyswat (later QuickClick), Third Voice and Amazon's zBubbles was also designed to let third parties add information to other people's web pages.

All of the packages I've named are now defunct, victims of the inability to get many users to download the software and the difficulty in making money off the tools. In contrast, TopText may have solved both problems, unfortunately so, in my opinion.

Distribution has been increased by cutting deals to bundle TopText with other software. The most popular among these bundling deals appears to be with KaZaA, a Napster alternative that's been downloaded by millions of people. Apparently unbeknownst to many of them, TopText has been installed with KaZaA, causing TopText's yellow hyperlinks to mysteriously appear on web pages for some users.

For its part, eZula denies that it is building its user base through some type of stealth tactics.

"We take several steps to make sure that users are choosing the service," said Michele McGarry, a spokesperson for eZula. She explained that a description that TopText is to be installed is shown, along with an option to opt in or out of the service.

Despite this, some users clearly were unaware that the software was installed on their computers, judging from feedback on forums and articles written about the program. One of my readers even contacted me trying to understand why yellow links had started appearing on pages he was viewing. He hadn't realized that TopText was installed, after downloading a different program.

Using myself as a guinea pig, I went to the KaZaA site to download its software.

This article is continued on the web site, with the results of Danny's evaluation as well as a comprehensive set of links to more information and resources for removing software programs that change or add hyperlinks to web pages.

Forget Smart Tags; TopText Is Doing What You Feared

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About the author

Danny Sullivan was the founder and editor of Search Engine Watch from June 1997 until November 2006.

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