Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Toolbar tricks in Google

Google has released the beta version of its Toolbar 3.0. Many people have used its earlier versions (I have one embedded in my firefox browser, I do find it useful for search). So, the newer, better version of the toolbar should be great, right? Well, yes and no.

See, the problem with Toolbar 3 (which the earlier versions did not have) is the autolink feature. What it could do is this: say you are reading a page that talks about a book, and in order to help you find it, the author of this page very helpfully provides its ISBN in the page itself. Now, while you are viewing this page, if you click the autolink button, it would highlight the ISBN with a link, and if you click on the link, it could take you to some online bookstore of Google's choice (which happens to be Similarly, if the toolbar program recognizes an address in the page that you are viewing, clicking on it will take you to -- guess what -- Google maps!

I can still hear you saying what is the problem with the toolbar? It all sounds so useful, and helpful. Well, read the posts by Robert Scobler, the Geek Blogger from Microsoft, here, and here. See also Steve Rubel and Dave Winer.

The basic point that they all make is that everything in a webpage (including links, or lack of them) belongs to its author. Some stupid browser tool cannot be allowed to mess with the content without the author's permission. If, for example (Google's toolbar doesn't do this; however, it may be implemented by some other company, which does not believe in Google's philosophy that says "don't do evil"), the webpage author links to some other online bookstore, but Google overrides this link, and provides an autolink to; I am sure you would agree that it is unethical. Even more bizarre would be when the toolbar overrides (at the browser) all the links in, say, the Barnes and Noble website to provide autolinks to Amazon! Well, I could give you many more examples, but I think you get the point.

Well, there are people on the other side, too! See Fred von Lohmann and Cory Doctorow. They make some interesting points, to which Scoble provides good answers here. In this last post, he seems to concede defeat, but goes on to suggest some ways in which both the user and the content provider can exercise some control over the webpage, so that Google's control over these links can be overridden in a more transparent way.

Clearly, the last word is yet to be spoken.