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Google Toolbar

Daniel Brandt

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It's always been evil. For starters, Google's toolbar phones home with every page you land on, and tattles to Google what you're looking at, while offering up your globally-unique Google cookie ID that expires in 2038.

As if that wasn't enough, the toolbar updates automatically, without asking. Once installed, this happens no matter how restrictive your Explorer security settings might be, and regardless of whether you have ZoneAlarm or some other firewall installed. Basically, this means that Google potentially can install anything at all on your hard drive, at any time that you connect to them. If you have broadband, it happens so fast that you won't even notice. One day you may see some new features on your toolbar, and then you'll realize that something happened.

Now Google has introduced a version 3.0 of the toolbar. It is still in beta, so this one won't be auto-updating for another two months or so. This new toolbar introduces AutoLink, which sounds friendly when Google describes it:

The online review of a great new restaurant has the place's address but no map. You could type the restaurant's street, city, and ZIP code into the search box, but why bother, when clicking the Toolbar's AutoLink button will automatically create a link to an online map (US addresses only)? AutoLink can also link package tracking numbers to delivery status, VIN numbers (US) to vehicle history, and publication ISBN numbers to Amazon.com listings.

The reason this has webmasters upset is because Google is essentially changing their pages by adding links where links did not exist before. These links take the toolbar user off of the page. Potentially they are a new source of revenue for Google, because the same technology can be used by Google to link to ads.

Anyone who thinks that Google wouldn't use this to link to ads hasn't studied what Google is doing with Gmail. But there is a bit of a problem with changing a webmaster's page, because altering the content and/or the linking of a copyrighted page would invite lawsuits. Therefore, Google is going more slowly for now, to see if they can start off on this particular slippery slope without too much clamor from webmasters and bloggers. Who can object to more information about a book, for example?

Load up your new Google toolbar and go to Barnes & Noble. Search for a book and go deep enough so that you see the price and the ISBN. Google's toolbar now says "Show book info" because it detected an ISBN on the page. When you click on "Show book info" the ISBN is highlighted. Click on the highlight and you end up at Amazon's page for the exact same book, with Amazon's price for that book. Convenient for users? Maybe. A threat to B&N? Definitely.

There was a uproar about this when Microsoft tried to introduce SmartTags back in 2001. This was a "feature" that placed a squiggly line under words on a page that Microsoft selected, and added a link underneath that took you to Microsoft. SmartTags was withdrawn before it could be introduced into a production version of Explorer. The person at Microsoft who was behind this abomination, Jeff Reynar, now works at Google (evil knows no boundaries). Even Microsoft came up with a page header tag for webmasters to disable this "feature," which is something that Google still hasn't bothered to do.

Barnes & Noble is no doubt consulting with their attorneys already. Fortunately, an existing link behind an ISBN will override Google's new link (adding links to unlinked text is one thing, but overriding the webmaster's own links would be too arrogant even for Google, Inc.). This behavior of allowing the original link to stand provides a way to shield your pages from surfers who use Google's toolbar.

Webmasters can construct a link which does nothing except stop Google. It usually does not change the appearance of the text, and it breaks the toolbar's ability to form its own link. The toolbar will still highlight it, but nothing at all will happen when the user clicks on the highlight. This link, for those who need a "toolbar shield," is simple:


Addresses will work as well as numbers. You are defining a null anchor and turning the text into anchor text. The link is invalid so it doesn't appear as a link, but it's valid enough to keep Google from hijacking it. Google will still recognize it as "hot" and will highlight it when the user clicks on "Show book info," but nothing at all happens when the user clicks on the highlight.

(On pages where the number appeared inside of tables or other types of complex coding, it was blue and underscored like other links, even though the link remained dead. If this is true on your pages, you can force the font color inside the anchor, but the underscore might be a problem. If you do any testing, you should know that the last digit of all ISBNs is a check digit. If you change any digit, then it won't compute and the toolbar won't recognize it as an ISBN.)

The user will think that Google's toolbar is broken. That, of course, would only be wishful thinking. But it's better than letting evil Google guide your visitors into the deep Amazon, from whence they may never return.


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