A group of programmers have decided to start editing the content of web pages folks visit without telling them, thereby rerouting them around the Internet. Sounds like a bunch of hackers, right?
Wrong. It’s Google. Here’s why it’s bad, why it’s not as bad as it sounds, and why I think it’ll go away soon.
Google has implemented a new feature of their Toolbar called ‘AutoLink’. Time Magazine has an article about it here.
Here’s what AutoLink does: If a customer is using the Google Toolbar, and visits a page on your site that has, say, an address, an ISBN number, a product SKU, a package tracking number or something else, the Google Toolbar automatically turns that text into a link, off of your site.
Yes, that’s right. You spend money on Adwords, you work on SEO, and then the very search engine you’re working with sends people away from your site after they get there.
It sounds terrible. And it is. But there are some mitigating factors: First, AutoLink is disabled when you install the ToolBar (at least it was for me). Second, AutoLink only works if you don’t already have a link in place. So if you have a set of ISBN numbers on your site, and you create a link to, say, Amazon.com or to another page on your site, AutoLink won’t edit the existing links.
But there are some big problems with AutoLink, and I think Google will be forced to do away with it. Even ignoring the obvious implications for online marketing, this technology calls into question who really owns the content on your site. You do, of course. But if Google writes a tool that edits that content by adding links, it seems to me they’re modifying what you own, without your permission. Finally, public outcry forced Microsoft to remove a similar function from Internet Explorer 6. So I doubt that AutoLink will pass a long-term smell test.
For now, what’s a marketer to do? Make sure that you create links for any content that might be auto-linked by the Toolbar. If you have an address on your site, or an ISBN number, or anything else that might get hijacked, link it to something. Or consider blocking the AutoLink feature on your site – it’d take a lot of work, but it might be worth doing if you test out your site and find that Google’s adding links on every page.
Finally, send Google feedback! They listen to the public – make sure they know how you feel about AutoLink.
03.10.05: Just a quick update: It looks like Google’s already weighing changes to the AutoLink feature. Phew. My faith is restored.