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

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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