What Traffic Google Giveth, AutoLink Taketh

In late 2000 Google introduced two innovative services that revolutionized the web. The first, Google AdWords, was a breakthrough advertising paradigm that enabled thousands of online marketers to attract more traffic to their websites. The other, the Google Toolbar, helped millions of users search the web more efficiently. But last month the company added a new feature to the latter, called AutoLink, which threatens to negate some of the benefits of the former by siphoning traffic away from sites without their permission ... unless advertisers do something to stop them.

With AutoLink enabled, Google automatically embeds links to any unlinked U.S. addresses, package tracking numbers, vehicle identification (VIN) numbers and book ISBN numbers it finds on webpages. These links either point users to Google properties (for example, Google Maps in the case of U.S. addresses) or other sites of its choosing (such as Amazon.com for ISBN numbers).

While some argue that AutoLink is a boon for users, many, myself included, feel it represents a significant overreaching threat to online advertisers. It’s just plain wrong. Google is altering publishers’ content without asking for permission. What’s worse, it’s not giving them any way to opt out (though some have developed unauthorized hacks to do so). This bullying is already forcing some to go to considerable effort to change their websites.

Consider Barnes&Noble.com, for example. The online bookseller -- a Google advertiser -- recently added millions of links to every published ISBN number listed on its site. Otherwise, it would continue unintentionally pointing its Toolbar-using customers to Amazon.com. Similarly, Powell’s Books altered the tags on its ISBNs in order to avoid leaking traffic for Google Toolbar users.

AutoLink has sparked a tremendous outcry from bloggers and the press. A number of heavy-hitter influencers, including Dan Gillmor, Dave Winer, Robert Scoble, Steve Gillmor, Steve Outing and Danny Sullivan have flagged the feature as a threat to the future of web content. Others, myself included, have said that AutoLink is strangely similar to a once-planned Internet Explorer feature called Smart Tags. Microsoft was forced to pull Smart Tags in 2001 after a public outcry from both publishers and pundits, like the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg.

Today Google has a similar public relations crisis on its hands, but it’s choosing to ignore a case study taken directly from Crisis Management 101 by continuing its arrogance. Consider what Google product manager Marissa Mayer told Washington Post columnist Leslie Walker: Mayer said that online publishers that want to protect their content should add links to prevent Google from doing so because the Toolbar technology will not override existing links. In other words, Google is saying “Tough luck. This is your problem, not ours.” What nerve.

Public relations issues aside, the AutoLink story is about more than one company’s arrogance. It’s about a behemoth getting away with something that might lead to even more. If online publishers give Google an inch by failing to speak up, it will surely take a yard. Signs already point in that direction.

In the same Washington Post article, Google hinted that it might add UPC codes to AutoLink. This would require thousands of websites to alter their SKUs in order to avoid sending traffic to places it never intended.

The reason Google has yet to back down is that its AdWords customers have yet to speak up. AutoLink clearly threatens to erode some of the value that Google’s advertisers receive from AdWords by taking some of that traffic back.

If you are an AdWords customer and you think this is overreaching, now is the time to act. Speak up. Demand that Google play nice by giving you an AutoLink opt-out. After all, you’re paying for them to give you traffic. Do you really want them taking it away behind your back? Google has already ignored the influencers over the AutoLink debacle and it seems like it is on track to be even more aggressive. But if Google AdWords customers speak up, you might be able to ensure that your content and traffic remains just that -- yours.

Additional resources:

The Washington Post interview with Google's Marissa Mayer. (Registration is free but required.)

Some of Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble's comments on AutoLink.

A Time Magazine article about AutoLink [].

Steve Gillmor comments

Steve Rubel evangelizes the application of blogs and RSS in traditional public relations campaigns. He is Vice President of CooperKatz & Company, a New York City public relations firm, and author of the Micro Persuasion blog.

 

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