Google Toolbar’s AutoLink and the Need for Opt-Out, Part 2

  |  April 6, 2005   |  Comments

Drawing the line at links. Last in a series.

At what point does a tool give a user too much control? When is a user given control a publisher ought to be able to counter? AutoLink, a new feature of Google’s Toolbar, has sparked controversy since its release. Last time, we looked at some of the pros and cons of AutoLink. Today, we’ll look at the links in more detail.

Adding links crosses the line. I don’t care if a user thinks adding links to my pages makes things better. As a publisher, I want to override a tool that tries this.

Legally, it’s unclear where publishers stand. But forget legal.

Adding links is a line respectable software publishers shouldn’t cross. Last year, Google introduced a set of software principles. They’re all about protecting the user experience. These principles should be amended to protect the publisher experience, too.

Provide an Opt-Out!

Some publishers want AutoLink to be opt-in, so Google can’t do anything like this without explicit publisher say-so. That’s too much. Users have rights. But Google should offer publishers an easy opt-out. This would allow publishers with serious concerns to block the tool on their own sites. Many aren’t concerned, so requiring opt-in is overkill and hurts the user experience.

It’s also somewhat hypocritical to demand Google require opt-in for the tool. Virtually no one demands crawling be opt-in. People want to be listed in Google because of the traffic it brings them. Yet crawling is another form of messing with content.

Google doesn’t want to offer opt-out. It fears opt-out will hurt the user experience.

"If the links sometimes won’t show because there’s a publisher opting out, that’s bad for the user experience," Marissa Mayer, Google’s director of consumer Web products, said.

"It’s an interesting balance to strike, but we’re going to weigh more heavily on the user side," she continued. "The publisher’s page is seen as intended in the browser. It’s a user-elected action that changes things. Beyond that, we aren’t driving all traffic to Google."

Google feels there’s a form of opt-out in that it won’t overwrite existing links. Worried an ISBN code may be turned into a link by Google? Link it yourself, and it’s untouched.

When Gary Price wrote about the AutoLink feature, he used an example of going to barnesandnoble.com to show how unlinked ISBN codes there were auto-linked through the Google Toolbar to connect to Amazon.com.

That made barnesandnoble.com a poster child for many publishers about why AutoLink was bad. It put links to a competitor on barnesandnoble.com!

It took the company about a week, but an opt-out is effectively in place for barnesandnoble.com. All ISBN numbers on the site now link to barnesandnoble.com content.

It was probably easy for the bookseller to make the change, having a database-driven site. For others, this could involve lots of hard-coding. If Google adds new content types for AutoLink, more publishers must make more changes. Adding your own links to block Google AutoLinks simply isn’t an effective form of opt-out for many.

They’re My Users, Too

My response to the "protect the user experience" argument is blunt: too bad if it’s harmed from Google’s perspective in this case.

They may be Google’s users, but as a publisher, they’re also my users. If my visitors are upset that my site prevents them from using Google AutoLink, they can tell me. I don’t need Google deciding what my users want on my Web site.

Google would gain on the PR front by offering an opt-out. I’d encourage it to offer a single, standard of opt-out other publishers could support, such as via a robots.txt file extension. That would be real industry leadership and in line with the software principles statement it made last year.

Turning the Tables

How would Google feel about programs that modified its search results? We have tools that strip ads from Google because the user may not want ads. There’s software that adds links to Google’s results (for more, see this forum thread).

The Toolbar Area Is Yours

I’d sweeten the pot to encourage Google to offer an opt-out. Personally, I only want it to prevent adding links to my pages. Want to display links via the toolbar? Fine. It’s your toolbar, do what you want with it.

That may mean down the line, Google will display ads or content related to my pages in the toolbar. Tools have done this sort of thing already (a new toolbar program from Searchfeed.com and EffectiveBrand just came out). Free, useful tools must somehow be supported.

I wouldn’t necessarily like it, but if it doesn’t interfere with my page, I’d live with it.

That’s so long as users clearly knows what’s happening in the toolbar. We’ve heard the same arguments about users having the right to do what they want from TopText (see part one of this series). Google says its history of disclosure on what the toolbar does is better. I largely agree.

"You can just look at Google’s track record with the PageRank feature. We tell people it’s not the ’usual yada yada’ and we are very upfront," Mayer said. "We make sure our users are really informed that something is going to happen, because we want to have the trust of our users."

In other words, no one’s tricked into downloading Google’s Toolbar. Links aren’t automatically enabled. You choose to turn them on.

I still don’t want links added to my pages. But if someone consciously chooses to click a button that makes new windows open, it’s hard to object.

There’s a long history of tools showing related content, such as Alexa. Heck, for ages both Internet Explorer and Netscape had built-in "related links" functionality, powered by Alexa, few objected to.

Alt-Click Away!

Another option for Google is to provide alt-click functionality the way GuruNet’s helper application, Answers.com, has long allowed. A user can select a word, hold the alt key and click, bringing up a page with more information about what’s described. This adds nothing to a Web page, easing concerns about content manipulation.

Google did consider this, but links were seen as more intuitive. Said Mayer, "The links that we add do look different. We work hard to help the user understand that this was a link added by the Google Toolbar, that it wasn’t a native link. We do this through a mouse rollover that is visible when you mouse over the link."

A mouse rollover isn’t enough. Before hovering, these links look identical to native links. Some users will click rather than hover for long.

A different color, a double underline, or something similar would help. But links are far more intuitive, whether they look radically different from native links or not. They simply clash too much with publisher rights at this moment.

Here’s an Opt-Out

You needn’t wait for Google to provide an opt-out, and it may never do so. Threadwatch.org describes a JavaScript blocking solution. Download the solution (instructions provided) and insert it into your Web pages. The same thread tracks any new solutions. New server-side ones were also posted.

Meanwhile, an anti-anti-AutoLink option, for users who want to override publishers trying to prevent AutoLink, is out there.

The user experience is hardly protected by Google’s refusal to provide an opt-out. It would be much better to provide an opt-out in a way that makes publishers happy and lets Google clearly report to its users if a publisher blocks AutoLink from a site they’re visiting.

Arguably, it’s bad for the user experience if users can’t obtain cached copies of pages. Nevertheless, Google has long allowed site owners to opt out of having pages cached, primarily, it seems, to avoid copyright conflicts. Despite this, the cached page feature has survived for years. AutoLink can survive opt-out black spots, too.

Just weeks ago, Google acknowledged publishers should have more ability to control their links through the introduction of the nofollow link attribute. It’s disconcerting to have the same company assume the right to add links to publisher pages without permission.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Danny Sullivan

Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch as of Dec. 1, 2006.

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