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Google in mass 404 land grab

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So, Google doesn't like other people hijacking their web pages, but it's more than happy to hijack someone else's.

On December 8, the ever sneaky Canadian cable and telcom giant Rogers Communications was caught inserting Rogers-centric messages onto third party web sites. Since Rogers's high-speed internet service is co-branded with Yahoo!, this included bastardizing Google's home page with the logo of its biggest rival.

Google soon told the world it was really peeved. "We are concerned about these reports. As a general principle, we believe that maintaining the Internet as a neutral platform means that carriers shouldn't be able to interfere with web content without users' permission," the world's largest search engine said.

Then, just days later, Google released a new version of its browser toolbar designed to hijack 404 error pages. No one noticed at the time, but word quickly spread yesterday after a shout-out from a blog known as Seoker.com.

As Google put it, when you use its new toolbar, "You’ll get suggestions instead of error pages: If you mistype a URL or a page is down, now the Toolbar will give you that familiar 'Did you mean' with alternatives, like when you do a Google search."

In other words, if you key in a web address and the server you're visiting can't find that address, the toolbar will, in many cases, ignore the 404 error page returned by the server, displaying one supplied by Google instead. This Googlicious error page will give you alternative urls, but it also includes a Googlicious logo and a Googlicious search box.

Plus, as Seoker.com points out, the search box is pre-packed with words from the url you keyed in. So Google has yet another means of tracking your behavior.

Of course, Google doesn't see the irony here. With his own blog post, Google search guru Matt Cutts said that if toolbar users and webmasters don't like this, they can do something about it.

Cutts argues that toolbar users can easily turn off this "feature" - or remove the toolbar. And he points out that even when the "feature" is turned on, the toolbar only displays Google's 404 error page if the server's page is less than 512 bytes. If it's less than 512 bytes, Google says, the server must be using the default error message.

"So if you’re a webmaster and want users to see your custom 404 page, just make your page be more than 512 bytes long," Cutts says.

He also goes to great lengths trying to show that this "feature" is darn useful. But he fails to point out that most users and webmasters are completely unaware all this is going on - and will remain completely unaware.

To us, this sounds an awful lot like Verizon and VeriSign nabbing mistyped urls and other DNS wildcards. Only it's worse. In this case, Google is hijacking your web browser even though you're trying to visit a valid domain.

It's grabbing land that belongs to someone else. Just like Rogers. ®

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