Is Google becoming evil? SmartTags Part Two?
By Red Squirrel
"New! AutoLink The online review of a great new restaurant has the place's address but no map. You could type the restaurant's street, city, and ZIP code into the search box, but why bother, when clicking the Toolbar's AutoLink button will automatically create a link to an online map (US addresses only)? AutoLink can also link package tracking numbers to delivery status, VIN numbers (US) to vehicle history, and publication ISBN numbers to Amazon.com listings."
As you may have heard Google will be releasing a new feature in it's popular toolbar, for those who unfortunately still use Internet Explorer. This feature will modify the web site and add links at the click of a mouse. No, not on the server, but on the user's side. Not quite hacking, but basically the same results of a defacement. The typical user won't have a clue that the site being viewed is actually different then what the webmaster intended.
How will this affect webmasters?
Let's say you are selling books through your online store and post the ISBN number, Google Autolinks will turn the ISBN number into a link...to Amazon! So instead of buying from you, it will be just as convenient, if more, for the user to buy by clicking on the link, or perhaps the user will click, not knowing you are not affiliated with Amazon and buy it there. There goes a customer. Depending on the knowledge of the customer and what just happened, the customer might think he/she was still buying from you by clicking that link. So even people who want to support your online store will actually be misdirected due to this "feature".
Autolinks will also link phone numbers, addresses, and other such information. This may be less bad then loosing customers to Amazon but still, Nobody should have the right to modify a site without the webmaster's permission, that is hacking! Google adsense, and any other ad publishing company sort of does this in a way, but the difference is that it's contained within the ad itself, and by placing the code webmasters are technically giving that specific space to the ad publisher, and getting paid for it. So this is not bad. But Autolinks will not involve putting any code, or otherwise granting the right to modify the website.
How will this effect the economy?
Well let's say you have Amazon and BooksA2Z (company similar to Amazon) which both have stocks in the market. Well on all the sites online referring to ISBN numbers, Amazon will receive the business, and not BooksA2Z so Amazon's stocks will probably skyrocket, and BooksA2Z will Enronate. So this may actually cause BooksA2Z to have to close, especially when they realize that even their own site is linking to Amazon when customers come on with the toolbar installed. Perhaps they're out of stock of a certain book so instead of the user simply waiting, they'll click on the ISBN number leading to Amazon and buy it there.
As the Autolink feature becomes "better" (using that word loosely) it may do the same to keywords, so if you're selling computers, it may randomly plug links to Newegg and other Discount sites and you will loose business. Even map sites make money off adds, now if every address links to a single map site, then all the others loose out. But if a street address is not linked and the user types it in Google or any other search engine instead of clicking it, then there's more chance for all the map sites to get a visitor, and ad impressions.
How will this affect users?
This is the bad part for webmasters, it won't really affect users much, but instead they may actually be attracted to this feature. So as webmasters we need to keep preaching on about switching to Firefox or any other non IE browser, since now there's another reason to do so and it's to try and stop users from changing our site! One thing that's bad though is that it will only work for US maps, so in a way, yes it will affect users, since not everyone is from the states and this feature will only work for US addresses. We can call if discrimination if we wish... They could at least make it support Canada addresses, UK addresses, etc. But that's besides the whole issue.
It could get worse
At this very moment, this is really just the beginning. If this keeps going, it won't be long until user's browsers totally rewrite web sites. Now that this concept is out, it's guaranteed many will start using it and implementing it in their own ways. Microsoft attempted this in the past with "smart tags" which ended up never being released due to protest. We can only hope this will happen with Google's Autolinks. It's really sad to see a nice company turn evil on us like that. Most of Google's income is because of webmasters, and now they are screwing us all over.
We also have to consider that these things can do mistakes, the same way a spam detection AI can produce a false negative or false positive. Robots DO make mistakes. So this means it can actually mess up a web site with no control to the webmaster. This is a really big issue. For example, if a database driven site links to what appears like ISBN numbers or street addresses, the toolbar may mistakenly modify the links, and make the site no longer functional. As more "features" are added these mistakes could become seen more often. Users will just think it's the webmaster's fault. Let's say a kid is searching on how squirrels reproduce and the word sex happens to be auto linked to a porn site, the kid may click on it and be brought to some nasty site, and in the end, the webmaster could actually get in trouble for linking to such sites on an educational site, but yet, he did not even link there. Right now this is not an issue but I can almost guarantee it will be if this "feature" is added to. Auto linking keywords to relating sites sounds like a good idea at first so I could see it happening.
It's easy, just don't use IE or the toolbar!
Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Real webmasters and smart users already don't use IE and don't use toolbars, and only use IE to test the layout and maybe use the toolbar to check Alexa rank, Google rank etc. What worries webmasters is the fact that most users do, unfortunately still use Internet Exploder and some might actually not even be aware of this so called "Autolinks feature". For now, they have to press the button, but that could easily be changed in the future.
The web site owning world is a fight between standards and users who insist on using IE, and with this new feature, it will make things even worse given a good percentage of users now use the Google toolbar since they think it's the only way to block popups.
What can you do?
There's not too much we can do as webmasters but hope Google decides to not release this. That said, the best thing we can do is contact them about it and express our concerns. Please, however do it in a kind message, as it will go further then just a pissed off tone. Also you might get more points if you use a gmail account. ;)
As of the date of this article (Feb 21, 2005) the status of this feature is curently only in beta.
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