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GMail Deepens Google's Advertising Flirtation

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_____Recent Columns_____
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Web Watch Archive
Leslie Walker's .com
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By Jonathan Krim
Sunday, April 25, 2004; Page F07

About a month ago, Web Watch mentioned that search giant Google made a significant change to the way it displays its search results. With all the brouhaha surrounding the company's new e-mail service known as GMail, this shift is worth revisiting.

As with other search engines, the page you get when you enter a query in Google includes "sponsored links" -- search results paid for by advertisers. On Google, these appear on the right-hand side of the page, in a separate column from the search-engine results.

One of the best things about Google through the years has been the way it has resisted the temptation to mix the two together, as competitors such as Yahoo do. Until now, sponsored links were clearly delineated by smaller type and a colored background.

Now, the type is nearly identical to the regular search results, and the differentiating color background is gone. It's a disconcerting change that breaks accepted design rules about using contrasting sizes and colors to help readers navigate a page. But more disturbing is the apparent creep toward the melding of sponsored and unsponsored search that is so important to avoid. What could possibly be the reason for this change, other than to sow possible confusion?

Google insists that the changes make its pages easier to read and were not requested by advertisers. It said that the "sponsored links" label is now larger and that there is a vertical line separating them from the other results.

The color background, said engineer Jennifer Fitzgerald, was fading out on some monitors, and the smaller type was harder to read.

I'm afraid I remain suspicious. Background color is widely used on the Internet, including elsewhere on the results pages.

Will many users be tripped up? Perhaps not. But the move does not inspire confidence in a company whose next big initiative is an e-mail system that will present sponsored links next to individual pieces of mail, based on the content of each message.

This has sent some privacy advocates into orbit, even though Google insists that no humans will scan the e-mail -- only computers will do this. The site has put up a preview of what these ads will look like: gmail.google.com/gmail/help/screen2.html.

I'm not one of those who thinks this is the end of privacy as we know it. (A bill in the California legislature would require Google to get the GMail user's permission before scanning any messages.) But as Google prepares for a much anticipated initial public offering, I hope it remembers that it achieved success by keeping its search untainted by ads and putting its users' needs first.

MapQuest Charts a New Course

The popular maps-and-directions site MapQuest also has undergone a facelift, this one for the better.

In addition to a cleaner look, the site's new home page now lets you search for any business, such as a restaurant, museum or gas station, without having to know its address. First click on a tab to choose a business category, such as coffee; then type in a city and state or Zip code to get a list of every coffeehouse around. Or you can search by a name, such as Ben & Jerry's.

The integrated search technology might kick out a few irrelevant results (turns out there are people named Starbucks; also, the search results include every matching establishment within 25 miles), but for the most part it's quite good. And with one click on a listing, you get a map. The results pages also include sponsored links -- clearly marked along the lines of Google's old look.

www.mapquest.com

E-mail Jonathan Krim at krimj@washpost.com. Leslie Walker is away.


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