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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.