Look out, surfers: there's a wave of controversy headed your way over the latest version of the Google Toolbar, a popular Web browser add-on that attaches a search box and an extra row of buttons onto Internet Explorer. The new version (available at google.com) includes a feature called AutoLink, which can transform plain text on any Web page into a link that sends users to a related site for more information. AutoLink, though still in beta, has many Web watchers crying foul because it gives Google--not users or publishers of sites in which links are embedded--the power to decide which sites it sends you to.
How does it work? Say you are scanning a list of restaurants online and want to check the location on a map. Instead of copying and pasting the address into a mapping site, you can click right on the address and view a Google-branded map that shows you where the dining spot is. The AutoLink feature directs people to Amazon for books and to Carfax for cars.
The problem is that while AutoLink can save time, some say it gives the search company too much control. "Google is inserting links on people's Web pages," says Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch.com At least one retailer, barnesandnoble.com has blocked AutoLink by adding coding to its site that overrides it.
Google says it is not receiving any revenue for sending people to Amazon and Carfax. What's more, since users have to click the AutoLink button on the toolbar each time they want to activate the new links, "it is a user-elected feature," says Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products. Mayer says the company plans to give users more say. The map feature allows people to select Yahoo or MapQuest, though Google Maps is the default setting.
When Microsoft instituted a similar feature, called Smart Tags, in Internet Explorer back in 2001, the company faced such a strong backlash that it dropped Smart Tags from Windows XP. Mayer says Google is unlikely to remove AutoLink but the ultimate decision will be based on public feedback over the next few months. •