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Google AutoLink Pits Convenience, Ownership Issues

But when Microsoft did attempt a similar innovation -- it added something called Smart Tags to a beta browser in 2001 -- the company stumbled badly. Smart Tags involved such not-so-smart moves as linking to a lot of Microsoft's own content and making users click only once to activate them.

Faced with a public outcry, the software giant yanked Smart Tags before they were officially released.

_____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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Google doesn't face Microsoft's monopoly worries (not yet, anyway), and its implementation seems more considerate of both Web users and publishers. One big difference is that Google shows pages with no hyperlinks added first and lets users decide when to add them. Users have to click the AutoLink button every time they visit a new Web page if they want to add hyperlinks.

"We think it's important to see what the publisher intended first," said Mayer. "It is a user-elected option, meaning if you are using AutoLink, it is because you knew about it and decided to click that button up at the top of your browser."

To make clearer how it works, Google is studying possible changes to how new links are presented and to the menu where they are activated.

The visual cues it uses to signal where links have been added seem too subtle -- three tiny bubbles appear when you mouse over a link. Otherwise, they look like regular hyperlinks.

Already, Mayer said, Google has decided to give users more choices about where the links will go for books and cars, as the result of feedback the company has received from users.

Google picked Amazon.com as the default book destination, she said, because it has the largest online database of ISBN numbers. But you can bet Barnes & Noble wasn't happy, even though the New York-based bookseller did not respond to my requests for comment. Initially, Google's toolbar transformed ISBN numbers on Barnes & Noble's Web site into hyperlinks leading to Amazon.com. In the past week, though, Barnes & Noble added its own internal ISBN links, so Google's AutoLink function no longer works on its site.

Hyperlinking their own content is the best way publishers can prevent Google from adding links to their pages, Mayer said, because Google's technology will not override existing links. She declined to comment on whether Barnes & Noble or other booksellers had complained.

To my mind, the Web is still an evolving public space, and rigid limits should not be placed on hyperlinks. While I would not favor third parties arbitrarily adding hyperlinks to pages I'm viewing, I feel differently when I am the one adding the links and they save me time.

If new layers of utility can be added on top of the existing Web -- especially giving users, not advertisers, greater control, and speeding up the process of finding maps, book summaries, product descriptions and the like -- what's wrong with that?

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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