Thursday, March 10, 2005

More AutoLink Outrage!

Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal doesn't like the AutoLink feature of Google's new toolbar, either.

And his article bears more than a passing resemblance to Scott Granneman's column. Almost as if one of them is paraphrasing the other. Or they're both getting their ideas from someone else. Hmmm.

Again, what the outrage comes down to (even in some posts on Fark!) is that web pages that these folks either design, or write content for, might somehow acquire links to somewhere else. Like a competitor.

Never mind that the links appear because the reader asked for them. They're still clinging to the idea that they have the right to control what you and I can do with their content after it's been downloaded to our own computers.

The arguments all seem to boil down to this:

First, if Google gets away with this, then Microsoft, or someone else, will bring back Smart Tags, which will rewrite pages automatically, without any user intervention at all, and we'll all slide down a slippery slope where web publishers won't have any control of their content at all...
If the principle behind AutoLink were to take hold, there would be nothing to stop Microsoft from adding a feature to Internet Explorer that would replace the ads on a Google search-results page with ads sold by Microsoft's MSN service.
And second, and this is the important part, the average web user (that's you and me, folks) is too stupid to figure out what's going on. They won't know where the links came from. And apparently, we'll just click on any old link and follow it.
I take a back seat to nobody in favoring user convenience, but, as with most things in life, every principle must be balanced against others. In this case, that balancing principle is the right of Web publishers to control the content and appearance of their own sites. Users wouldn't benefit if the Web became a sea of uncertainty, where anybody could alter every Web page.
Let's look at what seems to be the favorite scenario, here - I'll be on someone's web site, which is designed to sell me products and/or services, and AutoLink, SmartTags, EvilSneakyLinkTags, or what have you, will display links to competitors. The horror!

Just how do they suppose I arrived at this hypothetical web site in the first place?

I'll tell you how I would have gotten there - either the company was known to me, and I am specifically interested in their products, services, or content (Apple, Sunfire, eBay, Slashdot) - in which case, I'm already where I want to be, and I'm not interested in following links elsewhere...

Or, I arrived there by following a link from a search engine! (In my case, almost certainly Google.) I've already seen ads and links to competitors! The Web - especially if you're shopping for commodity items - makes comparison shopping quick, easy, and reasonably foolproof. With Froogle, Pricewatch, MySimon, and similar sites, I can rapidly determine who has the item I want in stock, and the cost. When I'm purchasing a book, I'll always search for the ISBN on B&N, Amazon, Bookpool, - you'd be an idiot not to, when it's so quick and easy. It's faster than driving to even one store.

So I'm just flabbergasted by the the idea that all these various pundits think that a tool that adds links to a web page is going to destroy Web commerce as we know it. Here's a hint for you e-commerce merchants out there - if your e-commerce site depends upon your customers being ignorant of your competition, you are doomed.

(Here's an idea - why don't you add links to your competitors yourself? If you don't have lower prices, better customer service, faster shipping, a better selection, an easier-to-use site, unique items, or more than one of these things, why would anyone choose to buy from you? Have some chutzpa - your customers will comparison shop; tell them you know they're smart enough to do it, and tell them why they'll discover that you're the best choice. If you can't tell them that, then as far as I am concerned, your business model consists of attracting ignorant customers, and ripping them off.)

Google's AutoLink simply makes it easier for me to perform certain actions that I already do. If Google happens to make some money while providing this service, good for them! A service like AutoLink is only a threat if you believe that the majority of your audience is too stupid to comparison shop.

AutoLink is, after all, in beta - like Google News. Google just added customizability to the Google News page - why wouldn't they do the same for AutoLink?

Here's what I forsee: you'll be able to add your own preferences for maps, booksellers, etc. to AutoLink, and you'll be able to choose which ones you'd like to follow. There will be one or more sponsored links, but they'll be clearly and unobtrusively differentiated from your custom links - much like sponsored links already are on Google's search pages. Google's business model is based solidly on a foundation of providing useful and powerful services to the Web user. Why would this be any different?

What about the slippery slope - first AutoLink, then the next thing you know, Internet Explorer is rewriting everything? It won't happen, and the reason is right in the last sentence in Walt Mossberg's article: "Users wouldn't benefit if the Web became a sea of uncertainty, where anybody could alter every Web page."

Users wouldn't benefit.

Do you know what users do when they stop seeing something as a benefit? They stop using it. Whether it's the Google Toolbar, Internet Explorer, or AOL - when something makes the user experience worse, the users leave. The "slippery slope" is self correcting, because as soon as a tool, or site, or service stops serving the user (read that as customer, e-commerce types) they'll turn you into road kill as they run to the competition.


Mossberg, Granneman, Danny Sullivan, and the rest are filled with righteous indignation, anger, and fear that someone might be able to alter their web pages - that they will lose control of their content. Walt Mossberg claims to "take a back seat to nobody in favoring user convenience," but then turns around in the very next sentence and claims that there is a "right of Web publishers to control the content and appearance of their own sites."

I agree with that - but I also happen to believe that that right stops when the content enters my computer. At that point, I should be able to view it, augment it, and annotate it in any way that I wish. I can't figure out what makes these folks enthusiastic about controlling what I can do on my own computer! That's the slippery slope!

Wouldn't it be unreasonable for me to prevent you from translating my blog articles to another language? Or from resizing the type to make it easier to read? Or resizing the window? Or to prevent you from having your computer read the article to you, because you're visually impaired? What if the things that I do to prevent copying and pasting, or reformatting the page, or to prevent AutoLink from working, also happen to prevent translation, or accessibility for the visually impaired? Is that just too bad? Is it all about me?

Apparently Danny Sullivan thinks so:
They may be Google's users, but they are also my users as a publisher as well. If my visitors are upset that my site prevents them from using Google AutoLink, they can tell and lobby me directly. I don't need Google deciding for me what my users want on my web site.
Did you get that? They're his users - and if he wants to screw up their experience, that's their problem. They'll just have to complain about it.

Well, no, actually - they're not your users, Danny. You don't own them. Which means they can also simply stop coming to your site, if you prevent them from doing what they want. It's colossal arrogance, and bad business, to believe otherwise.

If you try to control "your" users, and restrict what they can save, or link to, or enhance, or translate, you might discover that they aren't your users any more. Ask the RIAA.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Google Autolink and Hypocrisy

Scott Granneman has published a couple of articles on Security Focus regarding Google; a great search engine can also serve as a great exploit and hacking engine, if you put some thought into it (or you know where to look.)

I recommend giving them a read - although I take exception to a couple of things in the latest column. As a kind of lead-in to his assertion that Google's post-IPO motto is now, "Don't be evil ... mostly. Kinda. Pretty much. Maybe," he brings up the old red herring that Google's cookie isn't set to expire until 2038. (I couldn't care less. If it bothers you, clear your cookies from time to time. And replace your tin foil hat, while you're at it.)

But what's really bugging Scott is a new feature in the Google Toolbar 3.0 beta called AutoLink.
The AutoLink feature adds links to the page you're viewing if it recognizes certain types of information on the page. For example, the online review of a great new restaurant has the business address but no map. You could go to a map site and type in the restaurant's street, city, and ZIP code -- but why bother? Clicking the Toolbar's AutoLink button will automatically link you to a map. AutoLink also recognizes package shipping numbers, car VIN numbers, and book ISBN numbers. (from Google Toolbar Help)
Sounds pretty useful, right? The Google Toolbar already rocks - though I'd be more excited about the new features myself if there was an official version for Mozilla Firefox, which has been my primary browser for a couple of months now. There is an unofficial version for Firefox - the Googlebar extension. Couldn't live without it.

The problem, as Scott sees it, is that the hyperlinks that appear in his columns are as much a part of the article as anything else:
I work hard in these columns to pick interesting, informative links that back up my statements, provide detail where I must be terse, or entertain with a sarcastic comment on my text. It's as much part of my writing as the words I use. In fact, in 2005, I would go so far as to say that for any writer using the web as a platform, links are in fact part of his or her writing.
Fair enough, I guess - I try to fill my blog articles with useful, relevant links as well. But the AutoLink feature will put links on our pages that we didn't add ourselves - that's what it's designed to do, after all.
When Google changes the links on this web page, Google changes my writing, without any input from me, and for commercial gain that certainly doesn't benefit me, or SecurityFocus, the publisher of my columns.
Ahh - now we come to the real issue. Someone might be making money from his column, and it isn't him.

But is that really what's going on? It seems to me that you could also say that it's Google providing a service - the toolbar, after all, doesn't care what page you're on - and any potential revenue stream from that service is, legitimately, going to Google.
If I was an online bookstore, the fact that my ISBNs turned into links to a competitor like Amazon would make my blood boil. In essence, Google - and selected partner companies - benefit commercially from my work, and I see nothing for it. Alternately, on my web site, I provide a lot of stuff under a Creative Commons license, but AutoLink ignores it and commercializes things I do not wish commercialized.
Almost. The logic is soooo seductive. But hold on just a minute here:
...I'm a enormous, grateful fan of the Adblock extension, which allows me to remove advertisements and other annoyances from web sites.


I've been thinking about it, and I'm going to keep Adblock for now, since its operation is completely dependent upon my actions - nothing gets blocked unless I explicitly enter a URL to block - and since I'm removing annoyances, not augmenting content. In between Adblock, which seems OK to me, and AutoLink, which isn't, is BetterSearch. BetterSearch does change the Google results page, but it's not changing the original content. Instead, it clearly adds an enhancement. However, this does beg the question: at what point does enhancement cross the line? Frankly, it's a notion that's still up for debate, and I'm interested in your take.
Well, then - here's my take. AutoLink doesn't do its magic unless the user explicitly clicks the button in the toolbar - that is, it works only when, and because, the user wants it to. It also doesn't alter any existing links; it only adds new ones.

To be fair, Scott points out both of these things in his column. But then he goes on to say
...once AutoLink is pressed, the viewer will not be able to tell which links are put there by the page's author and which are put there by AutoLink. Granted, holding your mouse over the link and waiting for a tooltip to open will indicate that the link comes from Google, but I'm not sure how many users are going to do that. In fact, given the state of most web user's knowledge, I have serious doubts that they'd even understand what the tooltip's text meant in the first place.
Let me get this straight - the readers of his column, which has an emphasis on computer security and privacy, are apparently too dumb to figure out which links are his originals, and which ones were added by AutoLink, even though they had to press a button to get the additional links?

And it's fine for him to view content which is intended to be supported by advertising revenue while deliberately blocking the ads, but it's not okay for me to use a tool to add content to his page that's beneficial to me?

I think Mr. Granneman has been infected by the same idea about Digital Rights Management (DRM) that the RIAA has been trying to enforce - the idea that a creator of a work should have some control about how that work is used by the consumer.

It's something like an author complaining that I should not be allowed to highlight passages in her book, or write notes in the margin - after all, if she'd thought those things were needed, she would have added them herself. And besides, the pen and marker companies are making money because I'm marking up her book!

Well, it's not her book. It's her work; her content. It's my book, and I can mark it up as I wish. I can bend the corners, draw a mustache on the author's portrait on the flyleaf, and make the table of contents into paper boats - I don't care what the author wants. This is my own personal copy of the book, and what I do with it doesn't affect anyone else's copy. It's all about me.

Are you with me so far? When you or I view a web page, the content may have come from the web server, but the data has been copied to our computers. It's in RAM, and possibly on the hard disk as well. It's our own personal copy. If I choose to mark it up for my own convenience, that's my business - not the author's. Don't try to tell me what I may or may not do on my own computer.

Scott even cheerfully points out that there's code that web sites can use to disable AutoLink. Gee, thanks for enhancing my user experience. I'm sure he'll be just as enthusiastic when the advertisers write code which gets around his adblocker.

So, who is the hypocrite here? Google? I don't think so.