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Another Look At Linking Technologies

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I’ve taken another look at linking technologies (Microsoft’s failed Smart Tags in a beta of IE 6, Google’s Autolink, and now GreaseMonkey are examples).

Linking Technology
A Different Approach To Linking Technologies

Editor’s Note: Robert Scoble offers a different take on the technologies like Google’s AutoLink. Could features like this actually be better than the reputation they’ve received? With that thinking, shouldn’t we accept and even use the technology? Discuss at WebProWorld.


I’ve changed my mind — somewhat. I’m now going to take a user-centric stance instead of a don’t-tread-on-my-content approach. I’m also admitting I was wrong in calling all linking technologies evil.

So, let’s throw out what I’ve written so far. Let’s, instead, attempt to get big companies like Microsoft to take as user-centric an approach as possible when building linking technologies.

Many people, including Cory Doctorow told me that I was on the wrong side of the line by being anti-user (our debate should be up this weekend, Doug Kaye told me — he apologizes for taking so long to get it up, but he’s at O’Reilly’s ETech conference right now so can’t get them up).

So, how should we judge whether these new linking technologies are really “pro user?” Here’s six guidelines:

1) Does the linking technology ship with a default set of linking behaviors?

If it does, bad. If it doesn’t, good. Why is shipping with a default set of linking behaviors evil? Because that tells me that the company that is shipping the linking technology is more concerned by its revenue generating potential rather than taking a user-centric approach. From studying past human behavior we know that most people will just live with the defaults.

If you must include a default set of linking behaviors just as a proof of concept, then link to someone other than your company at first. Personally, I’d rather people who get the linking technology be asked to download a “behavior pack” which will be clear about what it does.

For instance, if Microsoft releases a linking technology, then it should let you choose your first “behavior pack.” It should take you out to a Web site and let you choose from a variety of packs so you know what you’re getting and how it’ll behave. If a default is loaded it should set off bells for being “anti user” because then it’s clear that the linking technology was designed to take users to advertising or company-specific stuff.

2) Does the linking technology potentially confuse some users when it’s turned on?

Now, Microsoft’s Smart Tag attempt (picture here) at least tried to use a squiggly line to differentiate itself from regular old A HREF links. I’d like future attempts to go even further.

Why can’t you put something that looks like a transparent piece of glass over a word that a linking technology is adding? Why do we need it to look like a link at all?

That way no user would ever be confused. But, if you decide to stick with a link then Google’s approach is OK. That forced the user to click a button on every page to see the new links. I just would hate to see what would happen when a company would try to turn that on by default.

I see a ton of potential user confusion coming. It should be clear where the new link is coming from, and, what behavior pack added it.

3) Does the linking technology give Web designers an “opt out?”

I might not want anyone to use a linking technology on my page, for instance. I’m a user, this is my work, and it seems sane to me to tell linking technologies to stay off while visiting this page.

Taking a you-must-display-my-new-links approach seems to be anti-user. Maybe that’s just me, though.

4) Can the linking technology be programmed by the user?

This is a key point. It should be #1, actually. If you’re gonna argue that linking technologies are “for the user” then you MUST let the user have control of the linking technology.

You MUST let the user remove linking behavior and you MUST let the user ADD linking behaviors. If your linking technology does not have this it CAN NOT BE SEEN AS USER FRIENDLY.

This is why I love Greasemonkey but I don’t like other linking technologies currently being tested. Greasemonkey puts me in control. It’s user centric.

5) Can the user package up new linking behaviors and distribute those to other users of the linking technology?

Again, one of the key arguments that has gotten me to switch my mind is that linking technologies are potentially user empowering.

Well, if you’re gonna make that argument then you need to go all the way to the mat for this one. If I’m a user and I want to create linking behaviors that’ll take you, to, say, a favorite charity of mine, then I should be enabled to do so.

If not, then the linking technology HAS TO BE judged as anti-user.

This is why I like Greasemonkey again. Mark Pilgrim, the other day, shipped a behavior pack for Greasemonkey that he called “Butler.” I thought that was great. I wish I could do it with other linking technologies currently on the market.

6) For linking technologies to be seen as “user centric” they must be explicitly loaded by the user.

Including them by default with other products or services is treading on dangerous water. This is why Greasemonkey is good and Smart Tags were evil.

7) If there is conflict between links, always display the original link.

That way the integrity of the linking system stays intact. Keeping the integrity of the linking system is very important to users.

8) If linking technologies are fighting over links, either display no links, or let all the linking technologies display links and let the user choose.

It’s possible, for instance, to come up with a menu. Look at the Smart Tag implementation again. A link could pull up a box that’d let you see all the linking technologies that are fighting over that link and let you choose.

Again, take as user-centric an approach as possible and make sure you don’t confuse anyone as to where the new links are coming from.

Make sense?

What do you think about this set of guidelines? Disagree or agree?

I’m still waiting for a really user-centric linking technology. Greasemonkey is close, though, and made me realize I was wrong in just calling all linking technologies evil.

Robert Scoble is the founder of the Scobleizer blog. He works as PodTech.net’s Vice President of Media Development.

Go to Scobleizer

Another Look At Linking Technologies
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