I had lunch yesterday with several Google folks including Marissa Mayer, the company's director of consumer Web products, to discuss the new Google Toolbar, which is now in beta.
Like several other people, I have raised serious questions about this product's new "AutoLink" tool. It strikes me as an intrusion into people's browsers by a company that commands great market share.
She listened to my concerns. And she explained Google's stance -- nothing new there, and it amounts to "this is all for the users' benefit" defense. I am not convinced, however, that Google will end up doing the right thing in the end.
As Search Engine Watch asks in this piece: "Why are publishers upset? Can they block the feature that adds links to their web pages? Who rules over content, users or publishers?"
Good and fair questions -- but Google hasn't sufficiently answered them.
At the very least, Google needs to make some changes in the installation process. As users install the toolbar they should be asked if they want features that change content on web pages. There should be an opt-in process, not an opt-out process, for such things.
I have trouble with Search Engine Watch's Danny Sullivan's view that publishers of Web sites should be able to opt out of the toolbar changes. In theory, once I have content on my desktop it should be my right to "remix" it in the way I choose.
What Google isn't taking into account is that its market power, and the tendency of users to accept the default -- to eat what's on the plate someone puts in front of them -- will tend to create Google's version of the Web, not the users' version. We all hates Microsoft's Smart Tags idea because it gave more, unearned power to Microsoft. Google doesn't have that same dominance, but it has enough to worry about.
Will Google do the right thing? This is a big test.
(By the way, Mayer said that while Microsoft's former Smart Tags guy is working for Google now, he's not involved in the Toolbar project.)