Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Google’s new toolbar

Google has a new beta version of their toolbar for IE. This would be cool if it weren’t for the fact that one of the features emulates Microsoft’s fated Smart Tags feature, which allowed the browser to alter the appearance of web pages by adding extra links (in this case to content chosen by Microsoft). The feature would have made it into Internet Explorer 6 but was dropped after an outcry by web page authors. Nearly 4 years on and many pages still include a ‘MSSmartTagsPreventParsing’ meta tag in their headers to stop this technology even though it was never included in a public release (as far as I know).


So, back to Google. The new toolbar includes a feature called ‘Autolink’. You can visit a web page, and then click the Autolink button to add extra links where they don’t already exist. For example, if it recognises a US address, it’ll turn that into a link to a map of that page, either on Mapquest, Yahoo Maps or Google’s own new mapping service, the latter being the default. ISBN numbers become links to that book on Amazon. Parcel tracking numbers become links to delivery status pages.
While to the naked eye the links are the same – underlined in blue – when the user hovers over them the mouse pointer changes to a hand with the multi-coloured Google balls next to it and a tooltip appears. The extra links can then be gotten rid of by clicking the arrow next to Autolink and using its Clear function.
Although MS’s Smart Tags feature was based on a similar idea, it required less interaction than Google’s Autolink – the smart tags appeared when the page loaded. Google’s implementation requires a specific user interaction of clicking a button before the extra links are displayed. Furthermore, the Google Toolbar is an optional add-on to IE, not an integral part like Smart Tags were.
So what’s the fuss about? Google is allowing users to optionally make web pages more useful to them by adding extra links where webmasters have not included them by default – seems like a good idea to me. But it seems that some people are irked by this. Dan Gillmor is one and I’ve seen a number of others with similar viewpoints. The general concensus is that Google is stepping over the line by actually allowing the modification of web pages. Some are also saying that if a web page is copyrighted then this is a derivative work, which would require permission of the copyright holder or would otherwise be illegal.
Personally, I have no problem with this feature, and hope that Google expand it so that it works with non-US addresses and includes a greater variety of bookshops. If Google is able to make my content more useful to people than that’s great, and I’ll make no attempt to prevent the Google Toolbar from being able to function properly on this site.
What’s more, any attempts to legally punish Google for such a feature is going to set a very bad precedent, and could make tools which block banner advertising (for example) illegal, since both modify the look of a web page at the client side.

6 Comments

  1. That’s a very sensible post and a very good point. However, I think the important point to be remembered is that this page altering thing is optional.
    I think it’s ok. Now if they were altering webpages to put “Google is great” at the top then I’d have a problem!
    Then again, that might only be one step away.

  2. This reminds me of Third Voice and other similar layered commenting programs…wish I could remember the names.

  3. No, I don’t like this at all. I’ll be writing about it in a bit more detail when I have a little more time, but in essence my concern is that as a designer and site owner, I decide the links from my pages, not the visitor, and certainly not a third party.
    What if, hypothetically, I was boycotting a retailer such as Waterstones, for sacking a blogger, yet Google served all my pages with links ‘helping’ visitors buy items from Waterstones?
    Another thought: how’s this going to affect affiliate links to e.g. Amazon? Will links generating revenue for the site owner be superceded by links benefiting no-one, or even Google?
    Nope; I’ll be investigating ways to block this outright.

  4. Chris: yes, the user (site visitor) can turn off this feature, but I want the content provider (site owner) to be able to opt-out, too.

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