August 23, 2001

Why I don't trust Microsoft: 'smart tags'

A rant on Microsoft, about their smart tags.

Edit: As it turns out, the annoyances of these smart tags have not entirely gone away, only morphed into a cross-browser technology. The difference is that now they are under the webmaster's control and generating income for them.

What follows is not my article. The real author's name is given below. I got this in a mail from our local LUG. Just put it up so that i could refer others to this. If anyone knows the trus source of the article please write to me. I will be more than glad to put up a credit.

Now Microsoft has come along with a "brilliant" idea. They want to piggyback their own selected content on top of your work. The idea is to have their products (such as Internet Explorer and the Office suite) scan web pages and documents for keywords and phrases known to the Microsoft. Any of these that are found would be underlined with a special purple "squiggle" to show that they are "smart tags".

Anyone viewing the page could then click on the smart tag and be transported to a Microsoft web site for more information. For example, you could write a web page about the Grand Canyon, and the phrase "Grand Canyon" could be underlined, allowing your visitors to check out the Expedia.Com page about how to book travel to the area.

Why does Microsoft want to do this? It's really very simple - to make an incredible amount of money. Look at it this way, Microsoft suddenly would have at their disposal every single document viewed with a new Microsoft product as a potential advertisement. Wow. That's power. No, this is an understatement of incredible magnitude. This is more than power - this is the harnessing of everyone's creative energy into a huge global advertising tool. It totally staggers the imagination.

You could be looking at a newspaper site, reading an article about train travel, and click on numerous links to Microsoft sites (and presumably third party sites which paid Microsoft for the privilege) selling train related products and services. If you read a classified ad on that same newspaper site selling an automobile, the word "Cadillac" could be underlined with a smart tag linking to a Cadillac dealer.

Content (the tags) are added dynamically to web pages by the browser without the permission of the person who created the pages (the webmaster or author). While strictly speaking this might not violate copyright laws (but it might be considered vandalism), it sure is rude. In fact, most people would consider it highly unethical.

As an example, suppose you bought a book through a book club. Before it was shipped to you, someone opened the book and examined every single page, adding comments here and there about how you could purchase this or get more information about that. You would be very annoyed if you were the author, you'd probably be livid if you were the publisher of the book, and you'd almost certainly return it if you were the customer.

Carefully crafted web pages whose look and feel has been lovingly built for countless hours by dedicated designers, authors, artists and webmasters would be randomly covered with trash by a company intent on siphoning away visitors to their own sites and pages.

And what about the problem of inappropriate content? Suppose you had a site which was against animal cruelty, yet Smart Tags went ahead and added to your pages links to other sites which sold muzzles for horses? You wouldn't like that very much, would you?

Another problem is that Smart Tags are "opt-out". This means the tags are inserted unless you (the webmaster or the user) indicate that you do not want them. Opt-Out is the preferred method of removal for many advertisers because they understand that most people will not bother to remove themselves from the list. Opt-in is the preferred method of most consumers because then they receive only what they have requested.

Webmasters can keep smart tags from working on their site by including a special "opt-out" metatag in the header of each and every page. I highly recommend that all webmasters include this tag to prevent smart tags from operating.

<meta name="MSSmartTagsPreventParsing" content="TRUE">

As soon as Smart Tags appeared in a beta release of Windows XP, the furor began. It was awesome to see. Microsoft was hit from all sides by just about everyone, because their intentions were so transparent and so blatantly monopolistic that even the most conservative could see what they were up to. The dangers caused a flood of protests to be received by the giant company, so many that Microsoft was forced to remove the feature from their products.

"As a result of smart tags in beta versions of Windows XP and IE, we received lots of feedback, and have realized that there is a need to better balance the user experience with the legitimate concerns of content providers and web sites," Microsoft said in a statement on June 28th, 2001.

Keep an eye on Microsoft, however, because they also added, "Microsoft remains committed to this type of technology, and will work closely with content providers and partners in the industry in the coming months to further refine how it can be used."

by Richard Lowe Jr.

Document Changes:
August 23, 2001: First version published

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