Custom 404 pages from Google Toolbar beta cause a stir

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6:20 pm EST February 12, 2008 - No sooner did we get through posting that BetaNews hadn't found a problem with the version 5 beta of Google Toolbar than it actually did find one: Indeed, the beta is capable of substituting a custom 404 page such as the ones BetaNews and other sites are capable of generating for themselves, for its own Google-supplied counterpart.


Google Toolbar 5 showed this substitute in place of a URL to one of our Web pages that we later learned was malformed. Normally, Internet Explorer would allow us to post our own custom 404 page.

5:03 pm EST - If you know where to look, you can turn off unwanted features in your software. But in the latest beta brouhaha, Google is being accused by testers of burying one of its off switches in a deep, dark corner that few would know how to find.

Back in May 2006, Google took Microsoft to task for allegedly hard-wiring Windows' desktop search options to prefer its own search services. Microsoft's defense at first was that its default preference could be overridden by the user, if he knew where to look.

Today, the tables are turning as an intriguing new feature being tested in the latest beta of Google Toolbar version 5 for Internet Explorer replaces some 404 error pages that IE normally generates for itself, with Google-generated 404 pages that suggest alternative spellings for possibly misspelled URLs.

The controversy surrounds the option found in the Search tab of the Options page, marked, "Browse by Name in the address bar." When this option is turned on, some misspelled URLs that don't return pages of any kind from a site, but which instead return classic 404 error codes, lead to the Toolbar generating a custom URL.

Some testers are claiming that when they enter an invalid URL that points to a default error page, assuming that page is under 512 bytes, Google will provide a 404 page that could steer users away from that Web site to offer alternate spellings. That 404 page overrides the one IE would generate for itself.

BetaNews tested the Google Toolbar beta and discovered how and why certain Toolbar users have been experiencing hijacking problems. To set the option, pull up the Google Toolbar options panel, then click the Search tab, and look under "Web-browsing tools" for the "Browse by Name in the address bar" option. The Google "hijack" occurs only if this option is unchecked, changing the 404 error users see.



Since most Web sites have a custom 404 error page to help users locate the information they are looking for (BetaNews is one of them), many users won't be seeing Google's custom 404s except on rare occasions. But users are wary of the fact that Google's system is made aware of the user's misspelled URL, in order to suggest an alternative. And some testers are asking whether misspelled URLs for corporate intranet pages would give Google too much information about the design of systems that normally reside behind corporate firewalls.

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