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.

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