When Good Search Engines Go Bad

Is Google’s new AutoLink a force for evil?

Has Google turned evil? Web pundit Dave Winer calls the search behemoth’s new AutoLink feature “the first step down a treacherous slope that could spell the end of the Web.” ZDNet’s Steve Gillmor says it’s “a pure land grab.” Slashdot chimes in with the ultimate insult: “Is Google AutoLink Patent-Pending By Microsoft?”

What’s all the hubbub about? A couple of little blue links. AutoLink is part of the new beta version of the Google toolbar. It’s possible to disable AutoLink with a single mouse click, but if you do keep it turned on the toolbar will crawl each page you surf for mailing addresses, book ISBN numbers, auto VIN numbers, and package tracking numbers. If a restaurant publishes its address, Google links that to a map. If an author’s Web site lists her books by ISBN number, each one becomes a link to Amazon’s page for the book. Why only this oddball collection of items? Because they can be reliably identified and have only one correct match. Google won’t try to link “Paul Boutin” to anything because it can’t distinguish between me and Mariah Carey’s recording engineer.

Is Google using its huge market share to edit people’s Web pages without consent? Not according to U.S. copyright law. Once you download digital content—a Web page—onto your computer, it’s yours to mess with as you please as long as you don’t redistribute it. As Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow explains, AutoLink is like a remix tool: It won’t replace an existing link with one of its own, but it does insert new links that the page’s author might have overlooked. Moreover, Google swears up and down that it’s not making any money from the companies it links to (Amazon, Carfax, MapQuest). Nope, it’s just offering a free tool that you might find helpful. That argument didn’t go over well at Barnes & Noble, which discovered that AutoLink was inserting links to Amazon.com on BN.com book pages.

So, is AutoLink good or evil? Try it for yourself: Click here  to install the toolbar on your PC. Skip the options to make Google your default search engine and to enable advanced features. (If you want to uninstall the toolbar later, go to the Control Panel and select Add or Remove Programs.)

Once you have the Google toolbar installed, reload this page and look for the grayed-out “AutoLink” button. Now, click here to look at my résumé. My address in the upper right corner of the page hasn’t turned into a link, but the AutoLink button has changed to “Look for Map.” Click the button, and voilá—AutoLink modifies the local copy of the page to turn the address into a link to Google Maps. Give a click and you can see where I live. Now, is that really so terrible?

Microsoft tested a similar feature called Smart Tags four years ago that linked the names of companies, sports teams, and colleges to sites Microsoft picked. They yanked it after three weeks of howling complaints that they were editing the Web. But there are a couple of big differences between Smart Tags and Google’s link inserter. Smart Tags were built into Internet Explorer; they also automatically edited every page you visited. AutoLink comes on a toolbar that users choose to download. There’s also no automatic editing—you have to click on the toolbar every time you want it to add links to a page. Many such programs have been available since the 1990s without drawing much flak.

The real issue isn’t AutoLink; it’s Google’s ever-growing clout as the $50 billion monolith of search. “What Google isn’t taking into account is that its market power, and the tendency of users to accept the default … will tend to create Google’s version of the Web, not the users’ version,” writes veteran tech journalist Dan Gillmor. And he’s got a point, considering that five out of six grown Americans can’t tell search results from ads.

I don’t think Google is evil for naively launching this feature. I do think they’ll be an accessory to evil if their tool prompts Yahoo!, Microsoft, or my ISP to start handing out similar software that’s a little more aggressive about stuffing in the links. Lots of companies have a different definition of “evil” than the Google guys—leaving money on the table is the ultimate sin.

If for no other reason, Google should yank AutoLink because it’s a poorly designed, oddly un-Googlish feature for a company that made its name on unobtrusiveness and unambiguous results. Most of all, it’s unsavvy. Google’s clever reinvention of Web ads won instant praise from both surfers and advertisers. AutoLink makes me wince. There’s got to be a better way to present map and book links than clumsily editing someone else’s HTML.

My advice to Google: Admit that you’re not a two-man startup anymore. Before you launch another AutoLink, bring in an external focus group. You can even invite a few dozen of the bloggers who are jumping all over you. Microsoft did just that before publicly launching its new search tools. Before you start laughing, maybe you should try Googling for “MSN Search is evil.”