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Google and Responsibility

July 24, 2012

Last month, I wrote about Google’s URL rewriting. I made the (admittedly a bit hyperbolic) claim that Google’s URLs broke UI across the Web, because people copy-paste links from Google search pages, and end up pasting links that point not to the intended Web page, but to Google’s redirection service. This makes it difficult to see the target URL by checking the status bar, and it causes the link not to be displayed in the visited-link color even if the user has visited the target page.

The question: Is that really Google’s fault?

My first instinct is to say yes. For one thing, Google holds a lot of power. It is basically the start page for the Internet. There are people who can’t even find Facebook without doing a Google search for it. (Perhaps I shouldn’t criticize them, though, as I once stupidly did a Google search for Bing.) Whatever Google does is bound to have an effect on everyone else on the Internet.

Besides, common wisdom dictates that Web site owners use the rel="nofollow" attribute, which Google introduced to cut down on Blog spam and keep spammers from affecting search results, and more generally that site owners optimize their sites to be readable by Google’s crawler. This applies to all search engines, really, but because (again) Google is so popular, it seems like it really is all about Google. I’m given the impression that Google thinks it’s everyone else’s responsibility to ensure that Googlebot can crawl the Web. (I do not claim that it is a correct impression, but it’s worth noting that I’m not the only one who got it.)

On the other hand, site owners do have certain responsibilities to their users. For instance, they should choose meaningful text and title attributes for links. They should use the alt and title attributes for images, especially where those images have important semantic meaning. Basic usability and accessibility measures like these help Googlebot just as much as they help users running Lynx or a screen reader. Googlebot can be seen as just another user, albeit a user on whom multitudes of other users depend. Consequently, being a good citizen of the Internet means playing nice with Google. The same goes for search engines in general.

Getting back to the redirects, I think the argument could be made that making sure you paste the right URLs to spare your users as much confusion as possible is one of those responsibilities that site owners have. I’m not saying everyone who posts a link to a forum or a blog’s comments should be held to this standard, but site owners ought to know that links to sites other than Google shouldn’t start with http://www.google.com.

Really, there should have been two layers of protection against the broken UI caused by Google’s redirects: Google and site owners. Both of those layers failed. All site owners, including Google, ought to make usability a top priority. Google added an unnecessary layer of difficulty for other site owners, who in turn should have paid closer attention to what they were pasting.

The bottom line is, if you’re on the Web, you have to behave responsibly, whether you’re Google or not.

Categories: Web usability Tags: ,
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