MegaZone (zonereyrie) wrote,

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KBlogger: The Great Google Toolbar AutoLink Controversy

It is time once again boys and girls. Yes, I realize I missed last week. Work happens - I was handed one of those A-1 Critical High Priority Drop Dead jobs on Thursday, that needed to be done by Friday night. (Well, for Monday morning, and I didn't want to work over the weekend, I'm selfish like that.) So I ended up putting in a couple of long nights and that ate up the time I'd planned to blog. Sorry. But I did two entries in one week a while back, so I still have a one per week average going. KBlogger is still suffering some formatting issues, and I see some of my past entries are a bit wonky now. Kath is working on it, and I'm sure she'll get it sorted, but in the meantime I've also been stashing my entires here and here. Redundancy is a good thing.

I felt doubly bad about missing last week after receiving my latest issue of Klixxx (Version 6.8) today and reading Raven's kind words on page 32. She made me blush, then I had to beat my ego back into its corner. Keep flattering me like that and I'll be even more insufferable than I already am. It was also nice to see Cyphermint (provider of my paycheck) and PayCash (our product line) get some ink in this issue as well. (Pages 61 and 37, respectively.) Whom do I make that check out to again?

Remember last time how I said next time I might cover something Kath inspired? Well, I'm not, but I still have it in mind and have some notes, so maybe next time. Instead I've been inspired to cover something else - the Google Toolbar, in particular the controversy over the AutoLink feature. I've seen this pop up here and there around the web, and this week it came up in a forum I frequent which brought it back to the front of my mind. Remember, the name of this blog is MZ's Digital Soapbox, so these are my views. I've also just started a thread on this in Webmaster Safari.

Personally I really like the Google Toolbar, and I was happy when they released it for Firefox so I could use it. Since I consider Google the "One True Search Engine", having search tools right in the browser (above and beyond the already solid features built into Firefox) is nice. But it does more than that, it has a solid spell checker (which I should probably make a habit of using more often when I'm posting to web forums), a translation tool, PageRank display, an AutoFill tool for web forms, on IE it adds a pop-up blocker and browsing by name (Firefox does these natively), and, of course, AutoLink. AutoLink is the source of all the controversy. Personally, I can see why some people are upset, but I don't think it is a big deal. This is what Google says about AutoLink:

The online review of a great new restaurant has the place's address but no map. You could type the restaurant's street, city, and ZIP code into the search box, but why bother, when clicking the Toolbar's AutoLink button will automatically create a link to an online map (US addresses only)? AutoLink can also link package tracking numbers to delivery status, VIN numbers (US) to vehicle history, and publication ISBN numbers to listings.

Actually, it is more flexible than that. The configuration allows you to select what it does with the three types of links:

Google Maps
Yahoo! Maps

Barnes & Noble


No one seems to care about the VIN feature, and most people, even those up in arms, seem to think the address mapping feature is nifty. All of the controversy relates to the ISBN feature.

A lot of the outcry seems to involve that age old standby for Internet protest - the slippery slope argument. You know - "Today they link ISBNs! Think of what they'll do tomorrow! We must stop this now!" Even if I did think the linking of ISBNs was somehow a bad thing, this kind of argument is just empty. They could do all kinds of things. That doesn't mean they will. Get your undergarments in a bunch when you have a reason to, don't jump the gun.

So, with the slippery slope degreased and sanded, maybe planted with some nice low growth with a solid root structure, the remaining argument seems to revolve around taking customers away from a site. Say you're Joe Bookseller and someone is browsing your page. The nasty AutoLink monster will suck them away to Amazon, who will get the sale. Or so the argument goes. They're modifying my page, and that's wrong! They're sending my customers to the competition! They're profiting from stealing my customers! This is evil! Google is supposed to do no evil! They said so!

Except that I think that's complete and utter bunk. It should be noted that the Toolbar does nothing by default. It is a tool. It sits there and waits for the user to use it. It doesn't do anything to the page unless and until the user goes up and clicks on the 'AutoLink' button. When the user does that, any recognized items in the page are turned into links with blue text on a light blue background, which makes them stand out. To further identify them they also have tool tips if you hover over them, which clearly say AutoLinked by Google Toolbar. It should be further noted that Google will not change or interfere with existing links, so if the text is already a link it is untouched. They are very benign with what they do. Here's an example of each, so you can install the toolbar and try it out. It isn't perfect, sometimes it will miss a field.

An Address:
Cyphermint, Inc.
241 Boston Post Road West
Marlborough, MA 01752

An ISBN: 1857801091 (Good book.)

A VIN: 1J4FJ27S6SL549076 (My old Jeep that I sold a few years back.)

Note that none of this is new for the user, they've been able to do these things for ages manually. The toolbar just makes it easier. There have been browsers and add-ons with similar abilities, such as highlighting any text in a page and then doing a web search on that text. So it would be a few extra clicks, perhaps, to get to the same end result. And the user has always been able to cut and paste the text into a search in another tab, or window. I must admit that whenever I see a book that might be interesting I've always jumped over to Amazon and found it there to drop in my Wish List. I don't need this Toolbar for that, but it makes it easier to do.

And that, really, is what all the objections boil down to. Not that the toolbar will actively steer anyone away from a given site, because it certainly won't. Or that it gives users new powers over the content of a site, because it certainly doesn't. But that it simply makes it easier for the user to do things that could've already done. And when you get down to it, I just don't see why that's such a big deal. It is a power struggle - who has more power, the webmaster or the end user. The Google Toolbar puts more power in the hands of the end user, and, based on the objections, it would seem that some webmasters aren't happy about that.

Personally I'm actually a bit surprised by the outcry. Pop-up blockers, ad blockers, script blockers, etc, all do a great deal more to alter a website. AutoLink does nothing to the actual content of the page. No content is added, removed, or replaced. The only thing that changes is the functionality - some content becomes a link when it was previously just plain text. It doesn't interfere at all with the normal operation of the page. These other tools can strip out content and change the page's behavior. And I'm sure that ad blocking software and pop-up blockers have a much larger impact on the bottom line for websites than AutoLink ever will. Basically AutoLink annotates the page - and only if the user says "Please, annotate this page for me", by clicking the button.

Let's look at an example from another technology sector. A number of TV network executives have bitterly complained about DVRs, like TiVo. DVRs scare them. It takes power out of the hands of the network executives and puts it in the hands of the end user. Having a DVR is like being able to program your own personal station, packing it with all the shows you enjoy, which will air whenever you want to watch them. Networks rely on program blocks, shoring up a weak program by putting it after a popular lead-in program, etc. If you can pick and choose what to watch, and when to watch it, it completely destroys their business model. 'Prime Time' is whenever you want it to be. They also live and die based on advertising revenue, and DVRs make it easier to skip the ads. So they have every reason to be worried and frightened.

However, the DVR, when you get down to it, doesn't do anything you couldn't do with a VCR. The executives' complaints all boil down to two things - time shifting and content skipping. Recording a program and watching it later, time shifting, is what the VCR was all about! And what VCRs didn't have a fast forward? I know I'd zip through commercials. Many high-end VCRs even had an automatic commercial skip function. All the DVR has done is to make these things easier!

Now, I would never give up my TiVos to go back to using VCRs. Because it is quite a leap in functionality. Instead of having to scour TV Guide for upcoming programs, programming in everything by day and time, etc, I can just tell TiVo to record a program and it figures out the rest. And there are many enhancements - only record new episodes and don't bother with the reruns, if the network moves the show around it follows it and I don't even have to know it happened, etc. And no more swapping tapes! But, at the core, you're time shifting with a lot of bells and whistles.

So a number of executives complained about DVRs, there were a few lawsuits, networks played scheduling games with interfered with DVRs a bit... and in the end they conceded the obvious, DVRs were here to stay and gaining acceptance. Now every cable and satellite provider is pimping their in-house DVR. TiVo is selling very well. DVD player sales are down, while DVD/DVR combo system sales are up. Media Center PC sales are up. TVs are coming with built-in DVRs. Etc. In a couple of years every cable and satellite set top box will be a DVR by default. And the networks have started looking for ways to exploit this new market, and it will certainly cause a change to their business models as more and more homes get DVRs. That's how a dynamic market works. (If it isn't obvious, I can't recommend TiVo highly enough.)

So why is this a big deal? I don't know, but I believe it probably boils down to one word: Google. Webmasters tend to have a love-hate relationship with Google. They depend on Google for traffic, and spend countless hours tweaking their site to get a better Page Rank, trying to game Google's algorithm to get a higher position in search results, and thus more traffic. Google makes a lot of webmasters nervous and/or frustrated. So any little thing Google does that they perceive could have any possible negative impact on them, and they react strongly. I can understand that, I just think it is out of all proportion.

Now, there are other things out there that are far more aggressive than AutoLink. For just a few examples, check out Dealio, BetterShopper, and Book Burro. You can comparison shop right from the browser. See something you like, they'll display prices from other websites right in the browser, automatically. No more having to visit Froogle, PriceWatch, CNet Shopper, etc. Tools like these are the ones that will suck users right off a site to buy elsewhere.

But you know what? I think that's fine too. It is simply technology making it easier for the end user to do things they've always been able to do. The Internet removed geographical barriers. It used to be that you'd have to drive around to the stores in your shopping area, and maybe check a few mail order catalogs, to find the best deals on what you needed. Online shopping has allowed us to find the best deal out there - even halfway around the world. Still, great deals aren't so great if you can't find them. And that's why, over time, the comparison shopping sites, like those I mentioned above, appeared. There was a market demand for such sites, and the demand was filled. These add-ons for browsers are simply continuing that evolution, making the process ever more seamless for the end user, reducing the effort required. They are removing practicality barriers in the same way the net removed geographic barriers. Trying to stop that would be like trying to stop the tide. It is the inevitable evolution of technology to meet the demands of the market.

Eventually we'll have some smart agents that cyberpunk authors and futurists like to write about. You'll say that you want a good book on, say, the old USAF Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program, and it'll go out and scour the net for books on the subject, find a few good examples, and then tell you where you can get them for the best price. And it will happen, eventually. But in the meantime we'll see intermediate steps. We may have to find the right book, but then the software will tell us where to buy it for the best price. That is going to be a major shift in the paradigm of the market, and that should probably scare a lot of merchants. It is coming, and everyone will have to cope with it. It will be great for end users, and for the merchants with the best deals, but not so hot for the other merchants. Think about it, if you could always know the cheapest place to buy what you need, assuming everything else being equal, why buy anywhere else?

If the same feature had been released by some small vendor, I doubt anyone would've noticed. Actually I'm pretty sure of it, since there hasn't been any noticeable outcry over the other tools I mentioned, which do a hell of a lot more to steer people to other sites than the Toolbar does. This turned into a tempest in a teapot simply because Google's name is attached to it. What the objections amount to is "I don't like my visitors being able to easily check for the same thing at another site." That's fine, no one has to like it, but I don't think it is reasonable to object to the existence of the tool that makes that easier. That's just part of being in a competitive, open market. It is a fact of doing business, and you have to handle it.

It comes down to competition. Compete on price. Compete on customer service. Compete on usability. This isn't anything new, these are the same guidelines good businesses have been following since the dawn of commerce. If Ogg sold his Woolly Mammoth steaks for 4 shiny rocks, and Thogg sold his for 5, you'd probably by from Ogg. Unless Thogg was always helpful and friendly, and Ogg hit you over the head with his club every time you walked into his cave to shop. Price is part of the overall purchase experience, so compete on every level by providing the best overall experience you can.

I say embrace and accept change, and focus on being competitive in the markets of tomorrow, because they'll be here sooner than you expect. Anyone who uses their time trying to maintain the status quo and hold back the waves of change is going to be left scrambling to catch up to the new realities of the market. In short - you ain't seen nuthin' yet. If AutoLink frightens or angers you, you'll be apoplectic when the next generation of tools start rolling out. Me? I look forward to it, I think it will be a hell of a lot of fun.

Tags: google, kblogger, software, web
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