Shades of Microsoft's SmartTags. Courtesy of Nick at Threadwatch, it turns out that Google's new Autolink Toolbar feature, which will present website visitors with links to alternative websites, was made by the fellow who created MS's SmartTags. Remember this?
<meta name="MSSmartTagsPreventParsing" content="true" />
The ruckus back then among the webmaster community was enough for MS to back off from deployment, but we're probably all still using the tag and hoping that it will always prevent SmartTags from displaying. Now it appears that Google is taking up the cause, or treading close to it.
Like it or not, webmasters and search engines have a symbiotic relationship: websites need promotion; search engines need websites to list. Arguably Yahoo and MSN have content but Google the least of all, and not nearly enough to keep the general searching public returning. Webmasters, bloggers and website owners invest time and effort to develop content that search engines use for free; in exchange they get free promotion if search engines include them in their search results.
Google already gets free content (websites) around which it can structure ads (Google Adwords); those same websites can run Google ads (Google Adsense). All well and fine, but Google's displaying ads/links/whatever of its choosing during anyone's visit to any website is a step beyond. One can almost hear the justifications now.
My wish: that the W3C org comes up with a generic tag to prevent any type of plaster-your-site-with-my-ads foolishness. Somewhere, someone is going to have to adjudicate the "where the browser and toolbar end and the website begins and thou shalt not cross that line" issue.
Update: I haven't installed the Google Toolbar because I don't use IE (and it apparently does a bit of phoning home); the word out from a few who have installed it is that the links are not to advertisements but to maps. The question then is: maps to what? for what purpose? who decides what areas to display? While we could look at this as "localization", it's also easy to see how easily this can be monetized.
Update Update: word is that (a) you have to click a toolbar button to get the display but (b) if you've linked to an ISBN number, the toolbar will direct you to Amazon. It is this second scenario that is a threat: regardless of whether the visitor came from Google or another search engine or site or a bookmarked link, this means that the website's content is being used to attract potential customers who are then being encouraged by someone other than the website owner to go elsewhere. That is the issue.
Since I've had to edit this, I'll ::cough:: refrain from speculation until I have more info. Maybe.
Another Update: Some recent links:
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