What if Google provided annotations for every link on the Web?

Imagine hovering over or right-clicking on links upon a page you’re browsing and seeing additional information about the pages behind those links.

A Google patent, originally filed in 2003, and granted this week, provides a way to see information about links for pages that you might be tempted to click upon before you actually click. Is this something that we might see from Google someday? Could it be the kind of thing that the Google Chrome browser might bring us?

Would you be interested in seeing some information about links on a page that you’re visiting before you click through those pages?

The kind of information that you might be shown could include:

  • Ratings
  • Annotations
  • History of use
  • Anchor text pointing to the page from other pages
  • Summaries or other data associated with the destination page.

Google might be able to use information about the browsing activities of a person using this system, such as which link someone considers following on a page, how much time they think about actually visiting that page, and whether they do click through, to “develop better user models, search engines and web browsers.”

The patent is:

Methods and systems for assisted network browsing
Invented by Gregory Joseph Badros, David Ariel Cohn, Radhika Malpani, and John Dominick Piscitello
Assigned to Google
US Patent 7,516,118
Granted April 7, 2009
Filed December 31, 2003

Abstract

Systems and methods for assisted network browsing are described. In one described method, a client device receives an interest signal indicating a user’s interest in a hyperlink contained in a first document.

The client device responds to the interest signal by generating a request signal comprising a request for third-party-provided information about a second document associated with the hyperlink. The client device receives the requested third-party-provided information and causes it to be output in association with the first document.

It’s possible that Google may never develop this kind of annotation system for links, but it’s interesting to see what kinds of information the patent says they might provide about the page behind the link, including such things as:

Other Links on the Same Page – In addition to showing information about the destination page for a link, information about pages behind other links on that page might be shown as well.

Browsers’ Recent Queries – Information related to the most recent search query or queries might be shown, to help address “the most recently stated informational needs of the user.”

Queries Related to a Page – Someone interested in the annotated link might also be interested in seeing what search queries that the search engine has determined to be related to that page.

A Content Snippet Related to the Page – A portion of text, image, or sound found on the document linked to, which can help the person browsing evaulate the potential usefulness of that page. The selection of the snippet used might be related to a past search query or queries entered by the person browsing.

Past User Information about the Page – Information related to a previous visitor or visitors of the page, such as a rating from users, how long previous users lingered on the page, how often previous viewers visited the page, queries that past visitors used to find the page, whether they printed the page, saved the page, and how far down the page they may have scrolled.

Genres – Useful classifications of the page, such as; “fictional, reference, children’s, or; adult-oriented document.”

Comparisons between Anchor Text Pointing to the Page and the Actual Content of the Page – How well the anchor text pointing to the page matches up with the content found upon the page. Information may also be provided about whether or not the page being linked to is from the same author or publisher, or is hosted on the same server.

Liveness – Has the page being pointed towards been “removed, moved, altered, neglected or abandoned?”

Cached Versions – A way to view one or more previous versions of the page might be provided.

Disruptiveness Measures – Does the page show pop-up windows, play loud or annoying music upon entering the page, or contain computer viruses or malware of some type?

Recommendations of Other Links – If you log in to this system, you might be shown additional links that let you “See related hyperlinks for users similar to you.”

Conclusion

I suspect that there are some people who would find a link annotation system like this useful when browsing web pages. I also suspect that there are site owners who might be concerned about the annotations that do show up for links that appear upon their pages, and might find those annotations obtrusive.

Would Google consider making this an optional feature for their browser?

The patent was originally filed in 2003, and it’s possible that Google might not have an interest in developing this kind of annotation system at this point. If they did, what kind of impact might it have on how you browse pages, or how you link to pages?

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15 thoughts on “What if Google provided annotations for every link on the Web?”

  1. It takes 6 years to get a patent? Did they have to go through clinical trials or something?

    My guess is that Google will still use this idea but the specifics of it might have changed in the last few years. This patent kind of reminds me of Ask’s snapshot images of what the site looks like before you click on the link.

  2. Hi George,

    It can take a while for a patent to be granted. For this particular patent, it appears that the examiner looked pretty closely at some previous patent filings, and thought that a number of aspects of this patent were pretty close to what was found in those other filings. After a number of arguments and amendments, the patent finally overcame those objections.

    It can serve a similar purpose to what Ask does with their snapshot preview, though there seem to be a lot of other options available in terms of what they might offer. If they do develop it, it will be interesting to see what they actually provide.

  3. Will be interesting to see how this one progresses and how it gets used. I would be a little worried about what they choose to list (maybe all of these optimisers will eventually become ‘annotation optimisers’).. however I’m sure eventually if it gets ironed out it will only help users of Google better find a page rather than hinder.

  4. Hi Charlie,

    Thanks. I think it could be helpful, too. The patent leaves open a wide range of possibilities.

    If people start optimizing pages of their sites for annotation, what would that entail? Providing reasons for people to stay on pages longer? Using better descriptive anchor text pointing to the page? Making pages more information rich and relevant for topics that they cover? Making sure that the sentences where keywords appear upon the page are well written, and engaging and might persuade someone to visit the page, like many try to do with meta descriptions? I think optimizing for annotations would mean having to build higher quality pages.

  5. If this comes into effect it will open up a whole new area of website optimisation. Isn’t there a danger of information overload though? Although it clearly seems to be an optional feature, surely it would sometimes be quicker just to naturally explore a website’s pages without being briefed about each one before arrival? It would be interesting to see how the information is displayed though – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen snap previews? That’s what I’m thinking…

  6. Interesting. This would take some of the “What’s behind door number …?” guesswork, when people click on links returned in Google’s search engine results.

  7. This seems like a pretty cool concept. I think it would be pretty cool if you could see stats similar to that of the SEO Toolbar by SEOBook.

    I wonder if they would consider doing it as a pop-up that displays when you hover over the link? And I know it would be for Google Chrome, but would they consider having a plugin for IE or FF?

  8. Hi Adam,

    I have seen snap previews, and I wondered if the patent might have intended to present something like that. But, they refer to many other kinds of information that they could present before people actually click on a link.

    There’s an interesting section in one of the very first papers on PageRank that discusses using a PageRank bar, like the one you see in the Google toolbar, as an annotation for each link on a page. In The PageRank Citation Ranking: Bringing Order to the Web, there’s a screenshot of a page from the Stanford website, which shows red bars next to each link, which indicate the PageRank for each page linked to. The bars vary in length based upon the PageRanks of those pages. PageRank itself was partially envisioned as an annotation system. Here’s what the paper says about that use of PageRank:

    7.3 User Navigation: The PageRank Proxy

    We have developed a web proxy application that annotates each link that a user sees with its PageRank. This is quite useful, because users receive some information about the link before they click on it. In Figure 7 is a screen shot from the proxy. The length of the red bars is the log of the URL’s PageRank. We can see that major organizations, like Stanford University, receive a very high ranking followed by research groups, and then people, with professors at the high end of the people scale. Also notice ACM has a very high PageRank, but not as high as Stanford University. Interestingly, this PageRank annotated view of the page makes an incorrect URL for one of the professors glaringly obvious since the professor has a embarrassingly low PageRank. Consequently this tool seems useful for authoring pages as well as navigation. This proxy is very helpful for looking at the results from other search engines, and pages with large numbers of links such as Yahoo’s listings. The proxy can help users decide which links in a long listing are more likely to be interesting. Or, if the user has some idea where the link they are looking for should fall in the importance” spectrum, they should be able to scan for it much more quickly using the proxy.

    We haven’t seen Google develop the use of a PageRank display as an annotation for links, even though they suggested the possibility in this paper from January 29, 1998. That doesn’t mean that they might not develop something else. Information overload could be a possibility. If people placed value in those annotations, they could impact the pages that people choose to visit, and to not visit.

  9. Hi People Finder.

    I don’t know if Google would show previews like this for pages returned in their search results as well. As I read through the patent, I looked carefully to see if they were discussing links that appeared only in search results, or only on pages that people were browsing. It’s possible that the link annotations could show up for both, but the patent didn’t say.

    I’m a big fan of what the people at User Interface Engineering (UIE) call The Right Trigger Words, or words in and associated with anchor text that help people browsing a site understand what they are likely to find behind a specific link. Helping to take the guesswork out of links can help people visiting a site find what they are looking for. I’m a little concerned about letting Google take control over what kind of annotation is used as a preview of what might be behind a link. I wouldn’t like a PageRank bar taken from a proxy server, for example, as that annotation. I don’t think it gives a clear window as to the content that will be found on the other side of the link.

  10. Hi Agent SEO,

    The patent does discuss using browsers like IE. It was originally filed in 2003, and we don’t know if Google anticipated building their own browser back then, though the patent does mention the possibility of using information from this process to build “better browsers.” I suspect that if they did come up with an annotation systme like this, they would develop a way for it to work with a number of different browsers in addition to Chrome.

    The patent also does mention a few different ways to display the information that they might show, including a popup type view when hovering over a link. I’m not sure which kind of display I would prefer.

    The SEO toolbar from SEOBook does provide a lot of information, but would that information be the kind that most people browsing web pages would want to see about the links that they might visit? I’m not sure that it is. I don’t think they would report statistics from Yahoo, or some other third party sources. But seeing things like other queries that Google might find a page relevant for would be interesting.

  11. Hi Michiel,

    It would be cool. I’ve been thinking about how they might show these annotations, and how disruptive those might be to the pages of other websites. What if you didn’t want those types of annotations to show up on your pages? Would there be a way for you to tell Google not to display them? I would guess that there would be webmasters who wouldn’t want annotations to interfere with their designs.

  12. Hi Michiel,

    It looks like they’ve left open how they might present annotations. It’s possible that they might provide a plugin, or incorporate the ability to see link annotations as part of their toolbar, for Internet Explorer or Firefox or other browsers, and possibly as an optional feature for the Google Chrome browser.

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