When Good Search Engines Go Bad

Is Google’s new AutoLink a force for evil?

Has Google turned evil? Web pundit Dave Winer calls the search behemoth’s new AutoLink feature “the first step down a treacherous slope that could spell the end of the Web.” ZDNet’s Steve Gillmor says it’s “a pure land grab.” Slashdot chimes in with the ultimate insult: “Is Google AutoLink Patent-Pending By Microsoft?”

I don’t think Google is evil for naively launching this feature. I do think they’ll be an accessory to evil if their tool prompts Yahoo!, Microsoft, or my ISP to start handing out similar software that’s a little more aggressive about stuffing in the links.

If for no other reason, Google should yank AutoLink because it’s a poorly designed, oddly un-Googlish feature for a company that made its name on unobtrusiveness and unambiguous results. Most of all, it’s unsavvy. Google’s clever reinvention of Web ads won instant praise from both surfers and advertisers. AutoLink makes me wince. There’s got to be a better way to present map and book links than clumsily editing someone else’s HTML.

Google AutoLink, which is available in the latest version of their Toolbar, at heart is an ad server. It inserts ads into webpages as they are viewed, with the website owner not being paid either. Google has been uncharacteristically unfriendly about AutoLink too, practically snarling that if you don’t like it, too bad.  They see AutoLink producing a vast new stream of ad revenue, and like a bull elephant in full rut, will let nothing deter them from reaching the goal.

Nothing but the Fortune 500 that is. If AutoLink inserts ads for Chevrolet into the Ford website, and it will, Ford lawyers can be expected to take action. Microsoft tried the same thing a few years back, calling it SmartLinks, and they got slapped down hard. Now it’s Google’s turn.

I see parallels between Google and Microsoft. Up until maybe 8-10 years ago, everyone loved Microsoft. Go Bill go, the techies, myself included, cheered. Then Microsoft got too big, too avaricious, and at least to some extent, turned against the users in favor of profits. Their up-until-then excellent public image took a sharp hit, something they’ve never recovered from. Yes kids, there was a time when everyone loved Microsoft.

Google may be in the same position now, a universally loved company about to take a public relations dive, and become just another company. Both companies are to a large extent, good netizens too. Both have genuinely created software that changed everything. I make my living using Microsoft Visual Foxpro and Frontpage, and of course, Windows, the sea in which most of us swim. Most of my database clients find me via Google AdWords. Many others are like me, their businesses wouldn’t exist without Microsoft and Google. Google Mail and Google News are amazing (and free) tools too.

So, maybe Google is becoming the Borg, like Microsoft. Does that mean two Borgs? Their huge size, and sometimes contradictory goals, reminds me of the Catholic Church, which manages to contain both hard left Liberation Theology and the hard right Opus Dei. They can’t be eliminated, nor should they be. But when they pull something stupid or greedy, they need to be called on it.

PS This is what AutoLink does.