AutoLink, a new feature in the third version of the popular Google Toolbar, has sparked controversy since its release. We'll explore the issues is this series.
AutoLink is available only to those using the Google Toolbar 3 beta. It reacts if it spots four types of information on a page:
When a user lands on a page with "trigger" content, he hears a little pop (the same sound used when a pop-up is blocked by the toolbar). The AutoLink toolbar button lights up. When the button's active, the user can click or use the drop-down arrow to get a menu. If he clicks, links are added to the page. If he uses the drop-down menu, he'll see those links in the menu rather than on the page itself.
Click an ISBN link and you land, via Google, on Amazon.com's book page, replacing the original page. Click an address, and you're routed to it in Google Maps. If you instead use the drop-down box to select an option, a new window opens to display AutoLink content.
Don't like the links? Remove them via the drop-down box. You can put them back with the "Add" option.
Publisher feedback isn't rosy -- most are crying foul. Having a tool modify publisher content is unacceptable, particularly given how easy it would be for any tool to grow capabilities, such as making words into ad links that generate no revenue for the publisher. It's happened before.
There's a hue and cry about Google trying to repeat what Microsoft abandoned in 2001: Smart Tags. It would have allowed words on a page to be turned into links. Microsoft would have determined the words and links.
Microsoft backed off, but TopText from eZula went ahead later that year. It inserted yellow hyperlinks into pages. Those paid links earned eZula money, but not the publisher.
eZula's still out there, apparently offering the same type of placement. The system didn't gain popularity, possibly due to search marketers who rallied to fight it.
Search marketers cared because they footed the bill. Ads they placed with providers such as LookSmart were inserted into pages they didn't choose. Many threatened their ad providers: stop partnering, or lose their business.
Publishers didn't like that the TopText system let competitors insert themselves in their content. Others, who bought precisely targeted search ads, discovered these ads were distributed to TopText for far less precise contextual targeting.
Smart Tags faced the monopoly factor. Letting Microsoft control how words were linked was too frightening to many. This despite the opt-outs the company decided to offer just before the end.
Enter Google, also a dominant player. "With AutoLink versus Smart Tags, the toolbar is different in that it's only installed by users [as opposed to automatically being part of the browser] and is by no means a majority," Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products, told me.
There's a TopText-like fear AutoLinks could cost publishers money. You may not want Google sending someone to Amazon to purchase, especially without your affiliate code.
Another publisher concern is Google sending anyone outside their sites via links they didn't provide in the first place. Google doesn't view potential traffic loss as a serious problem.
"Are we really taking traffic away from them? Think about what they've [users] done," Mayer said. "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."
Google says it has no immediate plans to put ad links on pages, and it gains nothing from those Amazon links. It was viewed as the best choice for book information.
When the tool emerges from beta in the near future, users will be able to choose some content providers. If you want links to barnesandnoble.com for ISBNs, you'll almost certainly be able to do so.
Will the tool expand the range of what's auto-linked? Google won't say. New features could be added or removed. The company is interested in link-enabling anything a user might copy and paste into Google, such as stock symbols.
Can't any word be turned into a link? "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.
AutoLink raises anew the debate of who ultimately controls content. "It's my content, hands off!" is a theme that resonates with many publishers. What gives Google the right to tamper with your page?
Google says users give them the right. They want the tool. They 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."
It's a forceful argument. We don't hear many objections to the fact users can control font sizes, for example. There's praise for Firefox plug-ins that do special things to pages. Why is Firefox lauded for enabling users, but Google viewed as evil for doing the same?
This isn't the first time Google has interacted with publisher content via its toolbar. The ability to highlight or jump to words on a page is well-liked. More dramatic was the addition of a pop-up blocker in June 2003. It not only prevented some sites from doing what they wanted, it arguably cost some publishers money.
I've seen a few grumblings Google may be blocking commerce and publisher intent this way, but acclaim for the pop-up block feature is lavish -- and mimicked by other search toolbars. Publishers probably didn't fight back more because it's clear consumers loathe pop-ups.
Next time: drawing the line at links.
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Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch as of Dec. 1, 2006.
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