Google AutoLink creates an AutoStink

Google scowling evilly Recently, Google released a new beta of their popular Internet Explorer only Google Toolbar. One new feature in this toolbar has received far more press than any other - AutoLink.

The AutoLink’s raison d’etre is to alter web pages at the request of the person looking at them, so that links to “interesting” materials are created. For example, if a page contained an ISBN number, then pressing the AutoLink button would create a link to the amazon page for that book. Likewise, if the page contained an address, then a link to GoogleMaps would be created.

There has been a lot of dissension about this feature in various communities, with many people saying that it goes against several of Google’s core ethics - especially “do no evil”. Concerns are mooted that although the links added by Google (which are currently fairly reasonable links in my opinion) don’t seem to bad, adding links in this way is the start of a long slippery slope to other people doing the same thing under the banner of “google did it”.

Of course, this isn’t the start of a slippery slope, simply one that’s just had a fresh batch of oil thrown over it - Microsoft tried to do similar things with its Smart Tags technology, TopText did similar things, and so did Flyswat. The possible difference here is that Google is a company which is generally very well thought of, and might just be able to get everyone accepting that this type of technology is A Good Thing.

Right now though, not everyone is so sure. Although users seem to love Google’s implementation (and why wouldn’t they? Google’s links do take them to useful websites), web site publishers are really not as happy. Here are some of the top reasons why:

  • “It’s a slippery slope. What’s to stop other pieces of software linking to evil sites and saying ‘why shouldn’t I - google does it too’?”
  • “It’s my content, only I should be allowed to alter it”
  • “I don’t want visitors being hustled away from my content”
  • “The fact that the links it creates look exactly the same as mine is bad. At least make them noticeably different to normal links on my page”
  • “This is going to reduce the amount of money that I can make from my site - it drives my visitors to my competitors.”

In the time since the Google Toolbar 2.0 beta was released, several strands of code have been written which disable the use of AutoLink. posted “Code for Killing Google AutoLink”, which includes techniques for killing AutoLink both on the client and server side. SearchGuild offers “JavaScript to Kill Google Autolink”, as well as suggesting that even though there is currently no opt out meta tag, that people should start using one anyway, as a show to Google and other publishers that web site owners do not want the content of their pages manipulated in this way.

As if this isn’t enough, anti-anti-AutoLink code has also been written for web users - purporting to stop anti-AutoLink code from stopping AutoLink links from being created. I wonder when the anti-ant-anti-AutoLink scripts will start being written?

My personal stance is that I don’t have a problem with what’s being done by Google right now, but an opt out of some description should be available (having an opt out hasn’t hurt google’s main search, why should it hurt AutoLink?) and that links created by the tool should be obviously different from the links already on a website before the user hovers her mouse over them. I admit that I’d probably be thinking differently if I was actually trying to sell something here.

Oh, and if you’ve got 12 minutes and a decent internet connection available, you could do worse than going and watching Better Bad News’ video message “Google Pollutes Links Stream With Evil Precedent For Market Censorship”.

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Neil Crosby now blogs at The Code Train and also runs, The Ten Word Review and Everything is Rubbish.