Last year, Google signed a landmark deal to become the default search engine on new Dell computers, plus to bundle Google software. Now, people are noting anew that a consequence of the deal seems to be pushing Dell users to search results dominated by Google ads, rather than editorial listings.
Google’s Browser Address Error Redirector from Google Operating System and Google turns the page… in a bad way from the OpenDNS Blog cover the same issue, a "feature" called "Browser Address Error Redirector" that sends those using Dell computers and trying to reach non-existent web sites to a page loaded with ads.
This has actually been going on for nearly a year now. Interesting Consequence of Google<->Dell Deal? from Dare Obasanjo shows an earlier version of it from last year. However, I get the impression the interface may have changed and more people encountering it now.
Here’s an example of what’s happening. Let’s say you tried to reach Microsoft but failed to add the .com to the address in your browser on a new Dell computer, so that you just entered [http://microsoft]. That error would get you redirected to this page:
On my 20" monitor, the top of the screen is filled with ads, so that it looks like this:
It’s not exactly the most helpful information for someone trying to reach a pretty easy-to-identify site. Rather than provide a link to Microsoft, the Google-Dell redirection lists a bunch of ads. Indeed, many more ads at the top (since Dell doesn’t show them at the side, like Google) than if you were to do the same search at Google.
Look at this side-by-side comparison of Dell’s Google-powered results versus Google itself:
I think the better quality of the results is self-evident. Google’s results put editorial links above the fold, with a direct link to Microsoft itself the first thing on the page — as it should be.
Personally, I don’t find the ads dominating this URL error page as bad as other things Google and Dell shove onto it. In particular, look at these sections. One from the side is called Popular Categories:
And at the bottom, Popular Results:
Really? I tried to reach a non-existent site and Dell and Google have somehow come up with Popular Categories and Popular Results related to this? And somehow, things like "car rental" and "payday loans" are among the contextually relevant choices?
In reality, these Popular Categories and Popular Results seem to have little to do with the popularity of URL error activity, as they would seem to imply. Instead, the seem suspiciously like a way to get Dell searchers to perform new queries that in response bring up ad-heavy pages that generate revenue for Dell and Google.
Let me be clear. These suggestion links themselves are not paid. Actual paid links within the Dell results are flagged as "Sponsored Links," in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines on labeling. But then again, there’s an excellent case to make that though the suggestion links themselves aren’t sponsored, they are misleading in suggesting they are somehow "popular" rather than hard-coded, hand-picked choices designed to generate ad views. That’s especially the case when a search for djfdkjkjdk brings up "Popular Results" that are the same as you’d seen in the search for Microsoft above. Clearly, these are hard-coded.
“The petition to us did raise a question about compliance with the FTC act,” said Mary K. Engle, FTC associate director for advertising practices. “We wanted to make clear . . . if you’re being paid, you should disclose that.”
Well, Dell seems to be inserting these links, with the cooperation of Google, for the purposes of getting paid. Shouldn’t that be disclosed?
The error page does have a What’s This link at the top to explain more about it.
This page was generated because of one of these two reasons:
- The web address you typed did not resolve correctly.
- You typed a keyword query in the browser address bar.
This page is meant to provide you with helpful related content, including web search results and paid advertisements, based on the meaning of the web address/keyword query that you typed. This program can be uninstalled from the Control Panel "Add/Remove Programs" in Windows XP or "Control Panel > Program > Programs and Features" in Windows Vista. Look for the application named "Browser Address Error Redirector". Older versions may be called "GoogleAFE".
The editorial results and even the paid ads can be considered helpful content, though obviously not as helpful as they could be. The Popular Results and Popular Categories units, let’s be honest, aren’t meant to provide any helpful related content at all.
The OpenDNS article on this issue also focuses on the software application that sends people to this page, if they enter non-working URLs, and suggests it’s spyware:
This page isn’t being shown to Dell owners just because they have the Google Toolbar. In fact, uninstalling the Google Toolbar won’t get rid of it. Dell and Google are now installing a second program on computers that intercepts all sorts of queries that the browser would normally try to resolve. This program has no clear name and is very hard to uninstall. In some circles, people would call this spyware.
I wouldn’t consider it spyware, but it certainly isn’t friendlyware. But you can understand why some people would think it’s spyware, when their computers seem to be acting in a strange way. Some searches brought up plenty of people who are confused by the software and what it is doing.
One of the most ironic things in all this is to compare what’s happening to the statements Dell and Google have made about consumer choice in the past. When the deal came out in May 2006, Dell said:
Our motivation is to deliver customers tools that enable them to search and organize information quickly and easily, right out of the box…Dell customers will have the option of choosing Microsoft as their default if they prefer.
I commented then
Yep — they just have to change the defaults in IE7, right? Except Google’s argued that those defaults are too hard for mere mortals to alter. So consumers really have as much choice with the Dell deal as they have with IE7 – that is, as much or as little choice as you think they are technically capable of.
Defaults and choice are important, because Google led a loud charge last year against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7 as somehow making it too difficult for mere mortals to change to another search provider from its default settings. The company even raised the issue with US and EU authorities:
Google has informed the European antitrust authorities of its worry that "Microsoft’s approach to setting search defaults in Internet Explorer 7 benefits Microsoft while taking away choice from users," said Steve Langdon, a spokesman for Google.
Google would not say specifically what it has discussed with American antitrust officials. "We have spoken to the Justice Department generally about our business and the importance of preserving competition in the search market," Mr. Langdon said.
However, despite choice, Google’s been happy to control the default settings through deals with Firefox, Dell, Adobe and others. The hypocrisy prompted me to write back in May:
Sure, I can get behind the "give people a choice from the beginning" idea. But if Google wants Microsoft to do that, then Google should make it happen right now in Firefox, which pretty much is Google’s surrogate browser. If this is the best way for a browser to behave, then Google should be putting its weight on Firefox to make it happen. And Google should also ensure it does the same with Dell, where it has a partnership that I believe makes it the default search engine on new Dell computers.