Trump/Bend on Google

It seems I am the number one search on Google for “Donald Trump Bend Oregon“. That’s awesome. I think I should win something :).

Even more amusing is reading the comments I got on that post, with the variations on the rumor people have heard.

How about this? Start a weblog called BendRumors.com (the domain is available! Grab it up quick!) and run just this sort of thing… (Actually, Shannon’s boy suggested something similar, doing “BendTabloid.com.” That one’s available, too.)

Sklar on Google Toolbar

David Sklar, a PHP programmer/author I respect, has a post on his blog on the Google Toolbar controversy. Sklar joins the voices of reason on this, few and far between though we may be. It’s a good post, worth the read, but I think his opening and closing sentences are the kickers:

Why do folks who want the freedom to remix content as they see fit get their digital dander up when other people remix their own content? …

The most important issue is recognizing that we all have to give up the control over our content that many of us demand of Big Media Corporations.

That’s the key, I think; of all those crying foul over the Toolbar, almost every single one that I’ve read is entirely hypocritical in that they don’t want the Toolbar to change their content even though they themselves engage in exactly this same thing with other people’s content.

Google’s AutoLink

Lots of invective and rhetoric being written about Google‘s new Toolbar functionality, AutoLink. Originally I probably wasn’t going to write anything about it, it’s really such a non-issue, but I’m growing irritated by the number of bloggers—mostly A-listers—who are speaking out against it. I’m not irritated as a knee-jerk reaction in defense of Google, but because most of what I’m reading is just plain wrong.

Quick background: Google’s new Toolbar (which is in beta, only runs on Internet Explorer for Windows and which you have to knowingly install to use) has a new function called “AutoLink” which, when manually invoked, searches for certain types of text on a web page and will automagically turn them into links, if there weren’t any links there already. The type of text it search for seems to be:

  • Addresses. These will create links to Google Maps.
  • ISBN numbers. These will create links to the product-specific page on Amazon.
  • Shipping tracking numbers.
  • Vehicle ID numbers (VINs).

Right off, I have to say I agree 100% with what Cory Doctorow wrote about this on Boing Boing:

It’s not a service I’d use, but I believe that it’s the kind of service that is vital to the Web’s health. The ability of end-users to avail themselves of tools that decomopose and reassemble web-pages to their tastes is an issue like inlining, framing, and linking: it’s a matter of letting users innovate at the edge.

I think I should be able to use a proxy that reformats my browsing sessions for viewing on a mobile phone; I think I should be able to use a proxy that finds every ISBN and links it to a comparison-shopping-engine’s best price for that book across ten vendors. I think I should be able to use a proxy that auto-links every proper noun to the corresponding Wikipedia entry.

And so on — it’s my screen, and I should be able to control it; companies like Google and individuals should be able to provide tools and services to let me control it.

Of all the sites I read, I think this was the lone voice of reason on the topic. Instead, you have people like Robert Scoble and Dave Winer calling this “evil” and a “slippery slope” that will lead to the end of the web as we know it and mass censorship by Google.

I’m not kidding. This is what Winer wrote:

And if links are changeable, is text subject to change as well? Might Google correct our spelling? Or might they correct our thinking? Where is the line?…

What’s next? Could they link it to Gmail, and where ever the name of a Gmail user appears in a page, change it to a mailto link so you can send them mail? If you’re in the widget business, might they change the links to your widgets to links to your competitors’ widgets? (Aren’t they already doing that to Barnes and Noble?) Would they add discussion software so that any Internet user can mark up your page with their comments, no matter how inane or immature?…

The AutoLink feature is the first step down a treacherous slope, that could spell the end of the Web as a publishing environment with integrity, and an environment where commerce can take place.

What’s funny is that email programs already autolink email addresses and web addresses—often wrong, I might add—in messages I get. And—get this—on any blog with comment functionality on it (like mine), users can already mark up that page with their comments.

(A note on the Barnes and Noble reference, though—yes, AutoLink does link a plain ISBN on Barnes and Noble’s site to Amazon. I confirmed it myself. Personally, I find it rather amusing; I know B&N will successfully lobby to get this fixed, so I’m not worried about it.)

And here’s some of what Scoble’s written:

I believe that anything that changes the linking behavior of the Web is evil. Anything that changes my content is evil. Particularly anything that messes with the integrity of the link system. And I do see this as a slippery slope….

The fundamental building block of the Web is linking. Linking is MY EDITORIAL CONTENT….

My editorial is sacrosanct. Linking is editorial.

Ironically, Scoble runs a linkblog where he reposts other authors’ blog entries, with his name highlighted, and adds a “Related” and “Comments” link to other people’s writing even as he writes the above.

It’s even more ironic that people like these guys who are all about innovation and are outspoken user advocates would come off like this. I see a “slippery slope” all right, but it’s going the other way.

How? Well, AutoLink is basically simplifying this process:

  1. Highlighting a piece of text on a web page (like an address).
  2. Opening a new browser window, going to Google (or MapQuest or Amazon, etc.).
  3. Pasting that copied text into the search box, and clicking the search button.
  4. Done.

No one should object to doing this, right? Well, the way I’m reading many of these arguments, pretty soon they will be. There’s the slippery slope, pretty soon the “content producers” are going to object because you might be using their text to search somewhere else on the web. So, let’s ban copying text from the browser. But wait, someone could just retype the text in without copying-and-pasting. Better take away the users’ keyboards so they don’t infringe on your content.

See? It’s a fun game.

The arguments almost all object to a third-party tool changing the content of their web pages by adding links. Okay, but what about the many pre-existing toolbars, plugins, extensions, and browsers themselves that already do this? Hell, the ability to do this is even built into the browser—you can turn off images, JavaScript, and stylesheets, and I guarantee doing that will alter the content of many, many sites—I’ve developed sites myself that depend on JavaScript and/or images, so I’m not exaggerating. This is a ridiculous argument.

In fact, the only good argument I’ve seen comes from Rogers Cadenhead: the copyright issue. By essentially altering a work (a web page, in this case) that is copyrighted for public consumption, the AutoLink feature may be in fact violating the copyright of that page. That’s a reasonable, intelligent argument and is something that should be addressed.

Until then, jeez. C’mon people, like Cory said, it’s healthy for the web. It’s innovation. Instead of whining about it, why not be productive? I’ve seen suggestions for an opt-out feature on web pages, that’s a good start; make it a META tag.

Or what about this? Make the toolbar smart enough to not change copyrighted pages, only those that are using an appropriate Creative Commons license, or are public domain. How would it know? META tags, again; Creative Commons licenses already embed RDF inside the content, so it’s not a stretch.

In fact, this is a good incentive to do something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile: convert my blogs over to Creative Commons copyrights. I personally have no qualms about toolbars or other software altering my content for a particular user’s display, so I’ll make it totally legal for them to do so. Within the week.

In the meantime, everyone complaining—take a breath and get over yourselves.

Google in The Dalles

I first spotted the news a few days ago on Metroblogging Portland: Google in The Dalles. Then my wife read about it online this morning, and now it’s on Slashdot. Sounds interesting, but it seems like kind of a random place to plunk down a data center (if that’s what they intend to build). Well, it’s better than Medford or Umatilla, I guess.

I wonder if this means The Dalles will be the next technology nexus in Oregon?

…yeah, right.

Much Ado About nofollow

Watching the various debate about Google’s nofollow initiative has been enlightening. Ostensibly, it was supposed to be a way to fight comment spam on weblogs, but predictably it took no time at all for people to figure out how to game the system. Also predictably, anti-nofollow support launched equally quickly.

I won’t use it. At all. Why? Mostly because it’s such a non-issue (it won’t do a thing to comment spam), but a large part of the reasoning is that I won’t be held hostage to what I can write and link to by any one search engine or technology. Nor am I going to let the ranking alorithm of one search engine make me do its work for it, especially if PageRank is broken like some people believe.

It’s a misnamed attribute, actually. Google says links with it “won’t get any credit when we rank websites in our search results,” but the “nofollow” label makes it appear that Google won’t actually follow the link itself. Not so. Google will follow the link, it just will not confer ranking.

More bothersome is the fact that other search engines (Yahoo and MSN, notably) have signed on to this. Why bothersome? Well, because Google’s PageRank algorithm is supposed to be a Trade Secret, and theoretically other search engines’ technologies are Trade Secrets also, so who knows how the others will actually implement processing of this attribute? Will they choose to actually not follow such links, allowing sites to potentially drop out of their indices? There’s no guarantees. But if they’re all similar to PageRank, and PageRank is broken, then they may all be broken and this won’t fix things.

Oh well. My various megalomaniacal rantings won’t change things in the world at large, so I’ll stick to what I can do on my own site. :)

The Google Platform

I’ve already seen several links to this today (the first from UtterlyBoring), and it’s too interesting not to point to.

The post in question posits this: Google is a platform. Not a “platform,” used in the same sense that Amazon and eBay are platforms (custom Web applications that allow some programmatic user interfaces), but an actual computer/operating system/development platform—something I had suspected for some time, but I’ve never managed to coalesce my thoughts this succintly.

What is this platform that Google is building? It’s a distributed computing platform that can manage web-scale datasets on 100,000 node server clusters. It includes a petabyte, distributed, fault tolerant filesystem, distributed RPC code, probably network shared memory and process migration. And a datacenter management system which lets a handful of ops engineers effectively run 100,000 servers….

Google is a company that has built a single very large, custom computer. It’s running their own cluster operating system. They make their big computer even bigger and faster each month, while lowering the cost of CPU cycles. It’s looking more like a general purpose platform than a cluster optimized for a single application.

While competitors are targeting the individual applications Google has deployed, Google is building a massive, general purpose computing platform for web-scale programming.

It’s one of the better tech reads I’ve seen in awhile. Very eye-opening.

Now, of course, my curiosity is taking hold, and I’d love to take a crack at developing for that platform!

Conspiracies in Web Tracking

Despite my headline, I’m not really going to go all Mulder on you and start ranting about Big Brother and privacy issues and all that. Instead it’s just some thoughts I’ve been entertaining lately on technology and tracking people and habits on the Web. Some people may choose to see the things I’m writing about as conspiratorial, and that’s fine for them; they may not want to read on, though :) . Continue reading “Conspiracies in Web Tracking”