Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Attention, Google - the honeymoon is over

CNET News has an article today about Google's new controversial Autolink feature. It's a part of the free downloadable Google Toolbar that's become insanely popular of late, and what it does is basically  looks at the content of whatever page you're on, and then adds its own proprietary links and information when it deems it appropriate. So, if it catches a street address on a web page, for example, it will automatically add a link to Google Maps to it; if it catches the ISBN  number of a book, it will turn the number into a clickable link for that book over at Amazon.

The morality over adding new content to existing web pages, without that author's permission, is at the center of the heated arguments going on in the blogosphere this week over the issue. What's interesting, though, is how many hardcore online people are using this issue as a way to viciously turn on Google, when these same people were the ones evangelicizing the place just a few years ago, making it the megasuccess it now is. "Oh, that's just great," will go a typical comment found around the web this week. "Not even a year since they've gone public, and Google's already turning into one of those companies I despise."

Customer loyalty among hardcore geeks, techies and nerds is even more fickle than with the rest of the population, which is pretty damn fickle to begin with, and a lot of companies I think forget this when they make their first online ventures. Or, maybe it's not that they forget it, but they just don't understand the nature of such people to begin with. As such things as XML, Wiki and open-source programming prove, many of these people finesse a love for radical politics as well as a love for technology, especially when it comes to such subjects as information-gathering, intellectual property, the rights of artists, and the role commerce plays in all of these. (It's no coincidence that many of the industry's current leaders were active in the 1980s punk movement, with its ideals of "doing it yourself" and that "information yearns to be free.")

Such people tend to make a clear division between companies who are simply getting ahead through hard work, cool features and honest communication, and companies who exploit the weaknesses of human nature in order to generate as much revenue as humanly possible (like our tendency to gravitate towards the companies who provide the most convenient options in our lives, no matter how much the options suck or how badly the companies treat their customers [i.e. the "Starbucks Syndrome"]). This is what's allowed Google to remain on the good side of these people for so long,  despite all the mainstream successes they've been having: "Sure," a typical hardcore geek might say, "Google has more money than God by now, but they legitimately deserve that money. They respect their customers, never try to pull over fast ones, and actually build things that really are that good." It's not how much money a company makes that determines how such people feel about them, like I think a lot of marketers and other professional business people assume; it's how the company makes its money, and how they treat their customers in the pursuit of this money. The gloves are now off for Google, now that they've done something these people consider unethical for the first time. I doubt that the company will ever get back that evangelical love from these hardcore techies again.

Meanwhile, Microsoft employee Robert Scoble, via a comment at PR  blogger Steve Rubel's website, confirmed that Google's Autolink technology was in fact invented by Jeff Reynar, a former Microserf himself who invented that company's SmartTags protocol half a decade ago. (Mr. Scoble has offered his own opinion on the subject as well, over at his own blog.) SmartTags was Microsoft's attempt to do this exact same thing - that is, to scan webpages and add proprietary content to them without the author's permission. Microsoft ended up abandoning the protocol a year later, though, for the exact reasons that people are howling about on the blogosphere this week concerning Google. Considering what a smart company Google usually is, I'm surprised that they didn't see this as the cautionary tale it is.