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Google AutoLink Pits Convenience, Ownership Issues

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page E01

Bring it on, Google. Bring us more shortcuts, one-click look-ups and Googlespeak, that strange language your engineers cook up to make it easy for us to pose queries. Do whatever it takes to save us time and tedious typing.

Well, maybe not whatever. There must be limits to Google's power to steer us around the Internet -- otherwise Google might morph into a meaner monopolist than Microsoft -- but today those limits seem fuzzy as a Siamese kitten.

_____Photo Essay_____
The Post's Leslie Walker sent back a photo essay from the DEMO conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. Check out views of Motorola's new iRadio, the Intellifit body measuring device and more.
_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: DEMO executive producer Chris Shipley joined Leslie Walker for a one-hour discussion of the top trends and innovations on display at this year's conference.
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You can see Google testing its limits, though, with a new feature called AutoLink that adds hyperlinks Google deems useful to the Web pages you visit. The idea is to automate the process of jumping from a street address to, say, a map, sparing users having to retype or copy the address.

Though still in test release, AutoLink has raised the hackles of critics who say Google has no right to add links to pages authored by others. Apart from prickly legal issues -- Is Google modifying content owned by others? Who owns hyperlinks, anyway? -- auto-linking raises basic questions about the essence of the Web and how to improve our experience with it.

AutoLink is available only to folks who download and install Google Toolbar 3, a software plug-in released two weeks ago that adds a Google search box and horizontal menu to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. (The toolbar doesn't work with other browsers.)

One of the new buttons on the toolbar is AutoLink. Clicking it starts a scan of the page you're visiting. If it finds a street address or ISBN book number, it will redraw that page and add a hyperlink to the text; clicking on the underlined text takes you to a map or detailed book description.

For now, AutoLink works in only four categories: street addresses (whisking you to Google Maps by default, but you can switch to MapQuest or Yahoo Maps); ISBN numbers (linking to Amazon.com book pages); package tracking numbers (pointing to DHL, FedEx, United Parcel Service and the U.S. Postal Service); and vehicle identification numbers (jumping to car history reports at CarFax.com.)

Google consumer product director Marissa Mayer said AutoLink involves no financial or advertising deals and is designed simply as a convenience, not a way to make money or route people to Google's own services. "We want to enhance the utility of the Web for users," she said.

While legal questions about who controls hyperlinks probably will take time to resolve, AutoLink strikes me as an important baby step toward greater automation online, potentially saving time by simplifying research tasks that are becoming routine. Mayer confirmed that more auto-links are in the works, probably using other numbers you can already type into Google's query box to get special results. Those include telephone area codes, which link to maps of covered regions, and UPC or bar codes, which retrieve links to product descriptions.

Google faces tricky challenges in deciding when, what and how to auto-link. Yet I believe this feature brings badly needed innovation to the Web browser, innovation that has been sorely lacking from Microsoft. To be fair, Microsoft's monopoly position in Web browsers has made such innovation tough for the software giant. With Internet Explorer installed on more than 90 percent of personal computers, any browser-tweaking Microsoft does that steers users toward commercial content could raise antitrust concerns.

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