The BBC just got round to commenting on the Google Toolbar 3 upset, so maybe I ought to quickly post a summation of what’s happening.
Search engine firm Google has released a trial tool which is concerning some net users because it directs people to pre-selected commercial websites.
The AutoLink feature comes with Google’s latest toolbar and provides links in a webpage to Amazon.com if it finds a book’s ISBN number on the site.
It also links to Google’s map service, if there is an address, or to car firm Carfax, if there is a licence plate.
Google said the feature, available only in the US, “adds useful links”.
But some users are concerned that Google’s dominant position in the search engine market place could mean it would be giving a competitive edge to firms like Amazon.
Steve Rubel first, to my knowledge, picked up on the similarity to this and another technology called SmartTags which Microsoft were blasted for trying to introduce into Internet Explorer some time ago.
How come nobody is crying foul here? Remember all the heat Microsoft took over its planned Smart Tags feature a few years ago? Gary alludes to it, but I think that there should be more discussion here. Let’s face it, Google is to the Web what Microsoft is to PCs – the operating system everyone uses to search. It has nearly the same lock on consumers’ share of mind (sorry Yahoo). And millions use the Google Toolbar. They shouldn’t get away with what Microsoft was unable to. It’s not fair and it shows that no matter what Google does, they can do no wrong in the eyes of the American public – at least for now. Could you imagine the uproar if Microsoft had tried this with the new MSN Toolbar Suite?
Make sure you visit the post in question as Steve provides loads of useful links in his post.
Dave Winer also makes various good points:
I’m talking with Google PR people later today. To summarize what I said in the podcast, the question is where is the line, what’s permissible content modification and what’s not? Certainly there is a line, right? We don’t mind them changing the font or size of our text, or even converting it to voice to make it accessible to deaf people. Then, the question of trust comes up. When Google bought Blogger, they stated clearly that they would not do anything to tilt the table in favor of Blogger, but shortly after, within weeks, they broke that promise, ironically, using the Google Toolbar. Even worse, they would not engage in dialog. Those were very difficult times, and the people who were responsible may not even be at Google now. Who knows. But the fact is, you can’t go by corporate promises in areas like this, and even if you could, their promises are not binding on other companies. It all may sound theoretic, but I’ve been around this block many times over many years. You have to have a sense where the line is, and not budge one inch. As I said in the podcast, we’ll likely have some powerful allies on this one, it’s content vs technology, the First Amendment and commerce, free speech and money (lots of it).
Scoble then weighed in:
SmartTags and things that add links to content are seen by users as helpful, content producers as evil, and tools makers as strategic. This is one time where the users are not right. Content producers’ rights must be protected (yes, I know I am hypocritical there because of my stance on RSS, but we need to look at prior usage of HTML vs. RSS. That’s real important to do. RSS has ALWAYS been repurposed. It’s a syndication format. HTML, on the other hand, has never had links added to it by big companies. When big companies change the usage model of HTML they are playing on dangerous ground).
Hmm. Pretty clear on the issue of web content. It’s a good point that Scoble make about most users being happy about this – for the majority of surfers, they would consider it to be a real bonus that they don’t have to copy and paste details from one site to another.
But a website owener has to be able to control where his or her links go. If I make my money through adverts to (say) BOL, I don’t, and BOL wouldn’t want, links popping up to Amazon stores. And who would get the credit for passing the business to Amazon? Not me, I’d wager.