After a day of severe blogospheric battering, I went and spent some quality time with the Google Toolbar beta. Summary: I went over the top, was too nasty, and shouldn’t have fulminated about legal action, and I’m sorry. But, I still believe this feature as positioned now is either evil or stupid or both. But, it could be fixed. But, it doesn’t matter that much because AutoLink is actually kind of useless and anyhow, the Google Toolbar is doomed.
The Debate · I won’t give a laundry-list of all those who said I was wrong, except to observe that, by and large, they were pretty polite. For which, thanks. In the last outing, I linked to several anti-AutoLink rants. For balance, I should link to what I thought was a very coherent pro-AutoLink piece from Yoz Grahame, and a typically excellent anti-but-moderate essay by Danny Sullivan.
The Experience · I sat down in front of a lightly-used Win2K box with a recent IE and downloaded the toolbar beta. Nice installation experience, especially the please-confirm dialog box that says “Really read this, it’s not the usual yadda-yadda.” I thought I’d try out AutoLinks close to home, so I went for a tour around ongoing and Textuality, but I couldn’t easily find a page with anything that lit up an AutoLink. Next stop was the Wikipedia, which is well-supplied with addresses, ISBNs, and the like. No luck; anything that might have matched was already linked, the Wikipedia’s like that. I did manage to tickle a couple of spurious-link bugs.
So I thought “Well, how about some arbitrary page” and did a Google search for “arbitrary” and, once again, no luck on the first few pages. Aha; one was a blog. Blogs have blogrolls. This has to do the trick. Miss. Miss. Miss. I’m getting really tired of the toolbar’s “Nothing found” message.
Oh, crap, Instapundit, now I’m snarled in the right-wing blogosphere. The media hates America. “Nothing found.” Palestinians don’t deserve a state. “Nothing found.” Europe is corrupt and irrelevant. “Nothing found.” I could go on, but I can’t imagine you’d enjoy it any more than I did.
Finally! Oh frabjous day! We are now at the Dynamist Blog of one Virginia Postrel, who seems nice enough even if she does say things like “John is a great guy and my kind of empiricist libertarian.” Uh, OK. Anyhow, Ms Postrel blesses us with an entry containing a not-already-linked address, here it is:
David Mastio, 6408 Edsall Rd., Alexandria, VA 22312, who is looking to hire an Associate Editorial Page Editor. Best of luck, Dave. Sure enough, the toolbar lit up and the map popped up. But it took me a long time to get there.
Conclusion: There just isn’t that much fodder out there for AutoLink to get its teeth into. I haven’t had much time to think about it, but maybe it’s because most people who publish an address or ISBN or whatever that they actually care about take the time to link it to something useful. So, it’s not a game-changer. But it’s still evil.
Why Evil? Let’s Map It Out · Well, for example, let’s talk about addresses and maps. Right now, we’re enjoying a period of rapid progress in the online-map space. Mapquest and their competition already provide a pretty good service, and in the recent past Google Maps, while prone to give bizarrely suboptimal directions, has advanced the state of the user interface. You can bet that they’re burning the midnight oil at the other online-map providers to get back in the User Interface game. This is good; how the market is supposed to work.
But you know, if everyone started getting their maps through Google AutoLinks, it wouldn’t matter how good anyone else was, because they wouldn’t be able to catch up because nobody would be looking.
Larry Borsato wrote to tell me that the toolbar lets you select your favorite map provider, and he’s right, but you know, I hadn’t noticed that, and I bet most other people don’t either; because Google is the default.
And suppose some bright developers in a garage somewhere are cooking up some new, dramatically better, online mapping application. If AutoLink maps became the default way of doing things, they’re stone-cold dead. Sure, they’ll just call up the Googleplex and ask to be on the options list with Yahoo Maps and Mapquest. Ha. Ha. Ha.
And that line of thought points to the real problem: Either Google Maps is a key part of Google’s business, or not. If it is, they owe it to their shareholders to use their near-monopoly in search to drive traffic there. If it isn’t, they owe it to their shareholders to sell the default-map-service link to the highest bidder for hard, cold, cash. Now maybe, just maybe, Google is sufficiently enlightened to forego this kind of advantage because it’s evil or even because it might fly in the face of a larger strategy. Whatever; there are letters of fire fifty feet high here, and they spell Conflict Of Interest.
The Upstream Viewpoint · I’m upstream, I write words and publish pictures on the Web. I understand the Web pretty well, and I don’t mind that much when browsers and feedreaders and search engines and aggregators fiddle with the way my stuff looks; it’s in the nature of the medium.
Before, the Web, publishing was about words and pictures. Now it’s about words and pictures and links. I’m OK with reformatting and aggregating and all sorts of other things, but I don’t want downstream software fucking with my words. Or my pictures. Or my links. A lot of us feel this way.
Now, suppose I’m wrong to feel this way; suppose that I really should be welcoming AutoLinks as an enlightened step forward because (my experience to the contrary) it benefits the community of users.
Well, OK, but I, and 99.99% of the other people upstream, are doing this for love (we must be, we’re not getting paid) so people like Google, who monetize our contributions (and that’s OK) should humor us. A strategy that creates an adversary relationship with the publishing community may turn out not to be evil, but it sure feels stupid.
What Could Be Done? · There are a bunch of incremental things that could be done with the toolbar to relieve the angst. Make the links look different. Be more up-front with the choice of map providers or book-listing providers. Document a way for publishers to opt out. Fiddle the business structure—somehow—to remove the conflict of interest. Any of these would be helpful. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that much, because the toolbar doesn’t matter that much.
It’s Doomed · As I noted, today I spent some real time, more than just a casual tire-kicking, with the Toolbar. I don’t need it. The really useful things about it are the built-in search box and the popup blocking. But of course, the browsers I use every day already have those things, and so will Internet Explorer before too long. Then what? The PageRank display is kind of interesting, but neither it nor the AutoLinks are going to draw crowds to the Toolbar, once they’ve got better browsers.
Anyhow, the toolbar—compiled client software—is way far from Google’s sweet spot. They just recently hired this smart guy who wrote a good explanation of why. Shipping compiled client software is so twentieth-century, Google can do better.