Google Draws Ire of Web Community with Autolink Feature

Google is facing criticism for a feature in the latest version of its browser toolbar that can add hyperlinks to Web pages, potentially giving the search engine giant powerful control over where surfers go on the Internet.

The feature, known as AutoLink, is being criticized by some bloggers, who see the tool being used by Google much in the way that Microsoft tried to do when it first introduced Smart Tags into its office suite. Eventually, Microsoft stopped using Smart Tags to funnel Web traffic when trademark and other concerns were raised.

Similarly, with AutoLink, Google could theoretically boost traffic to sites that were paying it for premium search traffic. For instance, AutoLink pages that contain street addresses are turned into links to Google’s map service and the ISBN tracking numbers used by book publishers automatically create a link to Amazon.com. Other links create pathways to Carfax.com and various package shipping services.

Image Damage?

Doing so could provide a huge boost to Google’s revenues, but based on the early outcry over the feature, might also damage its public image. Though Google is a dominant Web player, the comparisons to Microsoft are not intended to be complimentary. Any missteps in the public trust realm could send users to competitors such as Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves.

Google said the feature is meant to create a richer Web experience and that consumers will have choices of where certain links lead them.

However, Google is already facing mounting criticism for its decision to include the AutoLink feature in the latest version of its popular browser toolbar for Internet Explorer (IE).

In his weblog, Dan Gillmor said the move differs greatly from the Smart Tags attempt by Microsoft. For instance, Google’s toolbar has to be downloaded by users — it’s not pre-packaged on new PCs like Microsoft’s OS. And it only works with IE.

“All of those caveats aside, it’s still a bad idea, and an unfortunate move by a company that is looking to continue its hypergrowth,” Gillmor said. “With its enormous market share in search, Google is starting to act in ways that are reminiscent of our favorite monopolist.”

Others said while Google’s users have more choices, the technology could easily be duplicated by MSN and Yahoo, creating a situation where users had far less control over where their Web surfing took them.

Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg noted the uproar over Microsoft’s Smart Tags was immediate and vociferous and that so far the Google reaction has been muted. That’s in part because the technologies are different, he said.

Legal Entanglements

“The issue seems to boil down to where does control over content lie in this relatively new medium,” Gartenberg said. “What about the use of popup blockers? Doesn’t that also change the HTML content that’s being sent down? There’s clearly a fine line here and Google is smart in the sense that the toolbar is beta and if there’s too much uproar, they can always pull the feature. I don’t think that’s likely to happen, but we’ll see.”

In the end, it could be legal entanglements that prevent the Auto Links feature from becoming ubiquitous.

Earlier this month, Google lost a trademark ruling in France brought by the makers of the Vuitton brand, one that analysts said might prompt other trademark holders to launch legal actions.

Google enjoyed almost unquestioned loyalty and support from the online and technology communities on its way up. However, perhaps as a function of its sheer size and newfound fame and wealth after its IPO, some of Google’s recent moves have been viewed with abundant skepticism by the Web community.

For instance, Google’s recent designation as a registered domain seller sparked speculation about the company’s future plans. And its desktop search tool has been criticized on privacy grounds.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Google has lost some command of the powerful hold its brand once held in the search space.

Competitors Gaining Ground

A report from Keynote Systems last month said its Customer Experience Rankings for the search industry showed Yahoo and MSN gaining ground.

“Google is still king of customer experience in the search engine industry, but Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves are improving and making up ground,” Bonny Brown, director of research and public services for Keynote, told the E-Commerce Times. “As these sites continue to improve the user experience, they will undoubtedly begin to attract more users and improve user loyalty.”

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