Google Toolbar and autolinking

TheWayToWeb.com has an article up that expresses some concern over Google’s Toolbar for Internet Explorer and its latest feature “autolink”.

Autolink

What this feature does is automatically search a page you’re currently looking at and convert certain text items into clickable links to Google-provided information.

The items that will be searched for and linked to included street addresses which will get linked to maps of the address, package tracking numbers which will be linked to the delivery company’s tracking website, VIN numbers which will get linked to popular vehicle information sites and publication ISBN number which will get linked to that product’s Amazon.com page.

Privacy

While this may seem like a privacy concern, the toolbar isn’t doing anything with the information published on your page that the reader couldn’t do with a copy and paste of that information into the individual websites that Google links to. Most people won’t, for example, be posting the tracking numbers of Fed Ex packages or VIN numbers for their cars on their websites unless they specifically expect someone to go look that information up, such as in an auto auction in eBay, which doesn’t always automatically link the VIN number to a site a potential buyer might use like CARFAX.

None of this information is seen by or saved to Google. There’s nothing being transmitted without your knowledge, and therefore no privacy concerns as nothing’s really being shared that wasn’t shared without this program involved.

Opt-in

The other concern brought up by TheWayToWeb is that they believe the Google Toolbar features should be “opt-in” rather than “opt-out”, by which they mean they should be disabled by default until a someone requests them enabled.

For the end-user, however, the Google Toolbar is by its very nature “opt-in”. You have to download the software seperately from your web browser and install it on your system. Once installed, you have to click on the autolink button on every site you want it to work on, and when you leave the site and return later, you have to do so again as your settings for any site you visit are not saved.

For website owners there is no control over how a reader will view your website, and frankly, there shouldn’t be any expectation of such. No matter how tightly you design your website, the end-user will always have the option of increasing or decreasing the font size, replacing your hand-picked fonts with others, using a text-only web browser that removes all images, or a browser plugin that removes anything it believes is an advertisement.

While it would be generous of Google to provide an html tag that would allow website developers to “turn-off” the autolink capabilities for their website, they shouldn’t expect such service if only because of the nature of the web. Once you put the information out there, you limit your options to control how people choose to use or view that information.

In the end, the Google Toolbar is a completely optional end-user browsing tool, one that website developers should not allow themselves to worry over, be it for control or privacy reasons.

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