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Led by controversial DiggBar, toolbars are taking over the Web

April 16, 2009 |  8:31 am

Toolbars

Digg's new toolbar, which follows users around the Web by placing a frame on top of external websites, has had a bumpy first week after some bloggers publicly condemned the new product. 

Some bloggers have been relentless in their protests against the social news site for encroaching on their screen real estate and for potentially standing between Internet content and Google's search indexing algorithm. Strange to target Digg specifically, when other big sites including Facebook and StumbleUpon have been doing this for months -- but the Web works in mysterious ways.

Regardless, Digg announced Wednesday that it would make key changes to help search engines index the new code, assuring users that its method doesn't affect search engine rankings. Developers worked closely with search engine optimization (SEO) specialists from the beginning to ensure that the new method adheres to standard best practices, the company wrote in a blog post.

But even the best practices for a toolbar may not be ideal for publishers. Google assigns a ranking ...

... to Web pages based on the number of outside links they receive that are linked by others. The more links a page has from a reputable site like Yahoo or Digg, the more of what SEO experts call "Google juice" -- the magic stuff that helps Web surfers find your page.

But it appeared that Digg was drinking all the juice.  Whenever it sent users to a page outside its own site -- the toolbar still showed a URL beginning with digg.com -- for example, http://digg.com/d1oiiO. That looked like Digg was linking to itself, instead of the source.

Digg responded that, no, the links behind the scenes were still Google-friendly, despite appearances.

But there was another issue: The abbreviated Digg links being passed around on other sites were, it seemed, being ignored by Google. And because Google is a top referrer for most websites, that was no good.

Heeding the hue and cry, Digg wrote that it's developing an update that plays nicely with search engines and doesn't bombard non-Digg users with a toolbar, bringing its utility in line with most short-URL services that automatically redirect users to the content source.

That might settle the SEO portion of the debate, but critics may still be bothered that Digg and more than a half-dozen other popular sites are plastering the Web with their branding without permission

The DiggBar is a mere 47 pixels tall. But it remains visible when users scroll, forever taking up some prime onscreen real estate.  Web designers say "every pixel counts." And ads placed higher on the page often generate more revenue.

Digg founder Kevin Rose has been on the receiving end of the same "framing" tactic, which continues to draw criticisms of his San Francisco-based start-up.

On the March 4 episode of Diggnation, a Web show which Rose co-hosts, he discovered that Truveo, a video search engine, was displaying Rose's Revision3 website in an iFrame -- the technical name for showing another site's content within their framework.

"Oh, someone is taking your [expletive deleted]," said Rose, who is also the co-founder of Revision, to his partner, David Prager. "Why is Truveo doing this?"

There are a few reasons in addition to the constant branding. The frame allows sites to present exclusive features that add to the browsing experience -- the ability to comment or quickly view related web page, for instance -- and in so doing, keep users connected to the original site. Almost half of all voting on Digg now takes place on its toolbar, not on the site itself, the company said.

Sites can also use the toolbar to weave in ads. The DiggBar is capable of serving advertisements, and a new service called Twig lets publishers place an ad toolbar above their own content.

It's no wonder that so many sites are on the toolbar bandwagon. Facebook and StumbleUpon have been showing toolbars on links posted by users for some time. BurnURL and Ow.ly are two short URL services -- sites that crunch long links -- that also use iFrame toolbars.

While these frames provide helpful functions to users, they hijack a standard aspect of the Web browser -- the address bar. Instead of showing the actual address of the page you're reading, it shows a digg.com address instead of a facebook.com address or vice versa. 

Regardless, tech bloggers and marketing analysts are still hurling pleas for Internet giants to stop framing. John Gruber, who runs the blog Daring Fireball, developed a script that greets DiggBar users with a special, vulgarity-laden message. The New York Times blocks the toolbar entirely, as does Twitter and the aforementioned Search Engine Land.

Competing social news site Reddit has poked fun at Digg in its new product, Reddit All. A small-type blurb on its ad toolbar reads, "Don't worry, this frame won't stay when you click a reddit link -- that'd be lame."

-- Mark Milian [follow]

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