23 February, 2005
The latest version of the Google toolbar is out in beta (i.e. finished but subject to revision). It's only available for Internet Explorer, and I certainly wouldn't recommend that, so I won't bother to offer a link.
One new feature of the toolbar is attracting a lot of attention: the AutoLink button. If a block of text mentions a street address, the toolbar will render it clickable as a link to an online map (by default, Google's own). Other information is treated in the same way. For example, an ISBN will become a link to that book at Amazon.
This replicates the Smart Tags functionality tested by Microsoft and rejected due to user criticism. Other sites have discussed the issue at length, so I won't, but I do have a concern I haven't seen expressed elsewhere.
'Apologists' (heh – just teasing) point out that the functionality isn't imposed. It's not turned on by default, the user needs to press the AutoLink button before anything happens. Don't want extra links? Don't use the button. Simple.
However, I seem to be unique in approaching this from an entirely different viewpoint: my concern isn't the ability of users to avoid unwanted links but the right of content-providers to opt-out or block links.
As a designer and site owner, I provide some links from my pages, and withhold others. It's my decision, not that of a visitor, and certainly not that of a third-party. If I want to link to Amazon, I'll do so myself; the absence of a link means I don't want there to be one.
You might now realise that my omission of a link in the first sentence of this entry was an illustration of this point. Hypothetically, the technology could (it doesn't now, but it could) be used to convert a mention of the Google toolbar into a link to its download site. A visitor might find that convenient, but as I mentioned in the second sentence, I have a reason not to provide it. The visitor mightn't agree with that reason, but here's the point: I'm not asking the visitor's opinion. This is my website, and I demand the right to offer and withhold links as I choose.
Another hypothetical situation would arise if the ISBN-to-bookshop linking was extended to give the user a choice of retailers, and Waterstones was one of them. Since the hypocritical sacking of Joe Gordon, I'm unwilling to have anything to do with that company. I wouldn't be preventing the visitor from going to the Waterstones website via a different route, but I'd certainly object to my web content – my intellectual property, to get a little precious about it – being used to assist the process. If AutoLinks then linked to the retailer anyway, my site would be generating traffic and revenue for Waterstones, directly against my will. Personally, I don't regard that as acceptable, and don't believe that a visitor's convenience should override my wishes.
This is another example of the (in my opinion) flawed ideology practiced by too many web designers, that the user always has to have control. I disagree, particularly in the case of private, personal sites.
Follow-up: Two anti-AutoLink measures, and one anti-anti-anti-AutoLink measure which blocks AutoLinks even if the user is trying to circumvent the block.