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Clicks by deception? Not quite

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the brouhaha over a new Google search feature is turning into a debate of the deaf.

Fickleness, thy name is blogosphere. When Google went public last summer, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were hailed for breaking the corporate mold because they famously pledged in a public document to do no evil. Less than a year later, the kudos have given way to disillusion, with critics now likening Google to Microsoft (gasp!) of all companies.
The feature is so arcane it will likely only attract bored reporters and the severely anal retentive.

The opinion-meisters who inhabit the Internet are famous for being capricious, but this still marks a mighty rapid fall from grace for Google--made all the more astounding because the recent brouhaha is over AutoLink, a tiny icon found on the Google search toolbar.

So far, this remains a debate of the deaf. For its part, Google calls AutoLink a user feature, but critics are having none of that. They charge the company with viewing the world through the wrong end of the binoculars, contending Google has violated ethical principles that govern transparency on the Internet. As with most controversies, there's some truth to both arguments.

The AutoLink feature links users to other sites, but it does so without receiving permission from the publisher of the original page. So it is that publishers' ISBN numbers trigger links to Amazon.com, while vehicle ID licenses produce links to Carfax.com. And package tracking numbers automatically link to shippers' Web sites.

If this were a feature offered by some pipsqueak upstart, few people would get lathered up. But since this is Google, one of the most scrutinized companies in the business and the hands-down leader in Internet search, everything it says and does takes on magnified importance.

The politically correct thing to say these days is that Google is guilty of outrageous behavior and deserves a hard spanking.

What's more, Google's only getting hoisted on its own petard. Even before the company went public, Google's spin machine raised false expectations by furiously promoting Brin and Page as poster boys for a new kind of tech company (as for the supposed third member of the management triumvirate, Eric Schmidt was holed up with Dick Cheney at an undisclosed location).

The fact is, this is simply another public company that throws a lot of stuff against the wall and waits to see what sticks. That doesn't mean Google is evil--in fact, it did an admirable job separating out advertising in paid search placement--but the brass is out to maximize shareholder value. And that means monetizing everything including the kitchen sink.

The politically correct thing to say these days is that Google is guilty of outrageous behavior and deserves a hard spanking. Some go further and say it's hypocritical to offer Google a free pass while Microsoft was forced to pull its plans to introduce Smart Tags, a technology where users were being sent, via hyperlinks, to content pre-chosen by Microsoft.

But this isn't a Smart Tags redux. Microsoft wasn't going to give users a choice. The plan was to bundle Smart Tags in with the company's Internet browser. While Microsoft would have decided which links automatically appeared on screen, nothing happens if you don't click on the AutoLink link.

Maybe I'd be more outraged if I didn't believe the company's noble professions of superior morality were just so much malarkey in the first place. And despite the moralizing of the high priests of the blogosphere, Google has not yet been ruled a predatory monopolist. Nobody's forcing users to download the toolbar and use AutoLink.

In fact, the feature is so arcane it will likely only attract bored reporters and the severely anal retentive. You can still search the Web to your heart's content and nothing will get shoved down your throat by default. Who knows? Some people actually may find AutoLink to be beneficial.