I spent the last couple of weeks updating my main website Lunarstudio – mostly reprogramming and adding new images. When updating websites, most responsible webmasters and designers will run their site through additional browsers, operating systems, and test people’s reactions to new content. I had a friend look at my site on Sunday to see if she had any feedback. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a full-width bar appear at the bottom of my page on her monitor. My first reaction was “WTF”, followed by concern that somehow I must have uploaded malware to the back-end of my site. The third option which was slightly more worrisome is that some hackers got into my site. So I took a closer look, and the bottom left read “Google Related(don’t install this.)

Now, I would never think Google would have released a toolbar that covered up part of the screen. Not only was it distracting from the design I had worked so hard it, but it wouldn’t just affect me but almost every webmaster and designer on the planet. So my next thought that it had to be some malware she accidentally downloaded over the course of her Internet travels. Upon even closer inspection, I noticed that it was serving up advertisements and contact information from competitors. So someone looking at my site could see another image at the bottom of the screen, then decide to go to that website instead.

I started to look into this. Sure enough, it’s part of a new, 20-day old Google program which is a toolbar extension for Internet Explorer and Chrome. ArsTechnica wrote a concise article on what Google Relate does here. While it might prove useful for some users, for webmasters and those concerned with privacy, this is an absolute nightmare. It represents a major downfall in Net Neutrality if this is allowed to carry on. *Aside* – some might argue that Google is not a telecom, Internet Provider, or government agency and hence doesn’t fall into the argument of threatening Net Neutrality. However, I should remind people that Google has mentioned that it’s testing their Internet Providing services. Also, Android runs on many cellphones as well as telecom providers. They’re basically in bed with one another.

There’s several different and valid concerns, not to mention the legality of this program:

  1. It interferes with a person or company’s intended website design without their permission.
  2. It potentially distracts an end-user.
  3. It slows down a person’s website loading time. The speed issue is probably negligible, but it’s still there without an owner’s permission.
  4. It risks having people leave your website in favor of another. Holding user retention on a landing-page is tough enough, but this just adds fuel to the fire.
  5. Due to people wandering off one’s website, it can jeopardize website owner’s businesses and livelihoods.
  6. Google is directly (or indirectly) profiteering from someone else’s work without their permission.
  7. This is potentially part of their AdWords program, which makes money off of advertisements.
  8. It allows for Google to monitor your browsing habits, even when not using Google search. It’s basically spying on your activities.
  9. It potentially opens up the door for further abuse.
  10. It threatens Google’s competitors (Yahoo!, Bing, and other search engines.) If successful, competitors might also have to roll out similar toolbars or methods.
  11. It could become a permanent part of Google Chrome.

Now, there’s some usefulness to the end-user. It wouldn’t be fair for me to mention the Google Related negatives without the positives:

  1. Provides directions.
  2. Provides alternative solutions for someone looking for a service or help.

I was almost positive Google would provide webmasters with a method to take this off of owner’s websites through the use of META tags, but my searches for that method turned up empty. Instead, I came across other “unapproved” methods of using CSS code to disable the iframe, either by moving the toolbar off-screen, or by hiding the iframe completely. Unfortunately, I tried these methods and it didn’t work. It seems that Google caught on to webmasters changing their CSS code, and in turn updated their own to prevent us from doing so.

Since then, I’ve brought it to the attention of some friends on Facebook, however I think my concern has largely fallen on deaf ears which is understandable. I’ve also written on the Google Forum where you can see there my concern is #6. Some might call it an overreaction, but I think I’m fully justified here. The people reporting this problem is so low at the moment because Google Related is just starting to get attention. This is part of the reason why I’m writing about it on my blog – it’s to bring attention to this.

My main issue is that Google is intruding upon my work and business without permission. The nail in the coffin is that they are also potentially profiteering without my permission too. I think it’s just a matter of time before Google is:

  1. Sued by competitors.
  2. Department of Justice goes after them and tries to break up the monopoly.
  3. Public outrage from the webmasters community gets out of control.
  4. Or they disable it before it gets to any of the points listed above.

I hope I am overly concerned, and that Google disables their new program almost as soon as it has started. However, it blows my mind how this idea got past scores of lawyers, executives, management, and employees at a billion dollar company in the first place. If you agree with my concerns, please promote this article and also express your concern on the Google Related Forum. If you disagree, I’m still interested in hearing your views.

cleo
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12 Responses to Google Related Program and My Privacy Issues

  1. Charles says:

    Not only did it list our competitors website on it, when we clicked on the link to see if we in turn showed as a result on their website we found google related didn’t even APPEAR on their website, and no they had not implemented the code changes mentioned after looking at their style sheets. So this results in a way road from us to them. Wouldn’t google be screaming if MS tomorrow put in a featuref for IE that put a popup covering half of googles page with Bing results?

  2. cleo says:

    I’m seriously wondering if this idea is up there with bundling Internet Explorer into Windows – something Microsoft got taken to task for in their anti-trust lawsuit. It’s pretty bad, but people are just starting to catch wind of this application.

    I hear you. It’s really puzzling as to what they were thinking (or not thinking of.) I just don’t see how this couldn’t have crossed their minds when they decided to roll it out.

    Not to detract from the seriousness of this all, I wonder what happens when people look at porn. I’m not about to install it and find out lol.

  3. Charles says:

    That my friend is something MANY people will be questioning most likely and non will take it lightly. But what many may actually not realize until now is that googles toolbar has ALWAYS been monitoring ones internet behavior but it was not blatantly obvious until this.

    1. If you click on an adwords spot it will still pop up. So google adwords clients are not exempt from the popup.
    2. It doesn’t appear on googles on product sites such as youtube. I guess their own stuff is too good for google related.
    3. Doesn’t appear on Bing or Yahoo or other Search engines I have tried, nor does it come up on Facebook but it does appear on MySpace and WikiPedia. Also appears on Amazon, NewEgg, Dell and Ebay.
    4. 3rd party app warnings with HTTPS, when allowed however I do not see the popup, but someone with more skill at this needs to probably investigate. This could be extremely harmful to the entire nature of secured websites. Forcing a the “Allow Unsecured Content” warning to customers can cause them to loose trust in the website and leave and unsavvy surfers could click allow which totally compromises SSL certification and privacy protection your website maybe offering. (Which can be expensive!)

  4. Charles says:

    Further I have been trying to find out some numbers on how wide spread google toolbar is. Sure there are plenty of stat numbers on browser and search engines but I can not dig up any info yet on how many people are running with google toolbar active.
    Also I feel this could set some serious legal precedents if allowed. What would then stop Google or any other browser or plugin developer from “quilting” websites. Example could be changing content on websites. Change a shopping websites “buy now” buttons to goto a different website. Or change Adsense account ID#’s or other affiliate ids to another account. Surely this would be consider blantant stealing.

  5. cleo says:

    Seriously, what is to stop a company from completely blocking out a person’s page with their own? Where do they draw the line? That seems to be the precedent it’s setting here.

  6. cleo says:

    Yeah the toolbar at one point provided convenience, and allowed some of us to measure PageRank easily. That’s why I used to have it installed on my older computers. Now that PR is mostly gone and search is integrated into many browser’s interfaces, there’s really no reason to use the toolbar any longer. It was tracking people’s habits, but I wasn’t too upset about that. Now I’m upset that they’ve taken the idea several steps further.

    It’s interesting how you’ve pointed out that they’ve disabled it for their own competitors lol. Someone must have thought that it wasn’t such a good idea to be popping up over there…

    As for the numbers, I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that. I’m not sure if browsers have to report that part back to the Internet publicly. Widespread or not, this shouldn’t be happening.

  7. Charles says:

    Some webmasters are indicating 4-5% of typed search engine traffic is comming to them directly from the google toolbar, that may give some rough estimates on how widespread it is. I see that soon google will also plan on adding google adwords listings to the popup. Then they can get money from the first adword link from their website and again when the person clicks again on another adword and that landed page.
    Also the video that appears associated with our website is totally inappropriate. We sell computers for children and schools, the video is that of the angry german kid smashing his computer, that is not the type of message we want represented to people looking to buy computers for their kids.
    Because the popup appears to part of our website, the customer is led to believe it is provided and endorsed by us, which of course it is not.
    Target is also having this appear on their website which I found astonishing since target is one of googles primary adwords patrons. I am sure all it would take to get this yanked in a heartbeat is for the ceo of target or ebay or amazon to pick up the phone and give google a call and say wtf, take this shit down or were pulling our ads.
    I’m sure walmart is also going to really appreciate having “people of walmart” appear as a related link on their site.

  8. cleo says:

    Also the video that appears associated with our website is totally inappropriate. We sell computers for children and schools, the video is that of the angry german kid smashing his computer, that is not the type of message we want represented to people looking to buy computers for their kids.

    That’s really incredible… At the very least, they need to give webmasters more control if they pull a stunt like this, but the responsibility shouldn’t be on the webmasters in the first place.

    I am sure all it would take to get this yanked in a heartbeat is for the ceo of target or ebay or amazon to pick up the phone and give google a call and say wtf, take this shit down or were pulling our ads.

    Yeah – that’s why I kind of think (and hope) that this will be short-lived, and people looking back might wonder what we are complaining about lol.

  9. Charles says:

    Google toolbar comes with “Popup Blocker” but hmm for some strange reason it doesn’t want to block the “Google Related” popup.

  10. It gets worse. There’s still no way to opt out, and a CSS-only “opt-out-hack” ceased to work more recently when they removed the identifying class on the DIV & IFRAMEs. It is no longer selectable via CSS (at least not the CSS I know). When a customer complained about the bar, we wrote a little bit of JavaScript to remove it, but I do hope they will just make an opt-out setting in Webmaster tools. I don’t see why it’s OK to modify my HTML/DOM to inject competitor information. See: http://www.seoegghead.com/blog/google/how-to-disable-google-related-with-jquery-p859.html.

  11. Charles says:

    How long until Google starts sueing people for blocking Google Related? Whos’ website is it anyway?

  12. cleo says:

    Well, my website is my website. “Leasing” a domain name is questionable, as every domain on the Internet is basically leased. However, their browser is theirs and one opts-in to either use their browser or toolbar. Those technicalities aside…

    I consider it corporate vandalism that borders on a very gray area. If it’s too gray, it should simply be removed. It’s not worth alienating a customer base – especially the tech crowd. Last thing I would imagine they would want to be labeled is anti-competition like MS was.

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