Google and Dell's browser redirection software is virtually "spyware", the founder of OpenDNS claims.
A year-old deal between Google and Dell produces search results dominated by paid ads instead of the normal links and degrades users' experiences on the web, David Ulevitch said.
Almost a year ago to the day, Google and Dell struck an agreement under which the latter installed several Google tools, including its Toolbar and Desktop, on its computers. Dell also set Google as the default search engine in Internet Explorer. Among the tools the two didn't mention last year - the one which has Ulevitch hot under the collar - is a browser redirector that sends users who mistype a URL or enter a non-existent address to a Dell-branded page loaded with Google ads.
A Dell user who types "digg.xom" (rather than the correct "digg.com") is redirected to this page, which sports sponsored links plastered across a the top of the page, Ulevitch charged in a blog entry.
"Dell and Google are now installing a program on computers that intercepts all sorts of queries that the browser would normally try to resolve," said Ulevitch. "This program has no clear name and is very hard to uninstall. In some circles, people would call this 'spyware'."
When questioned on his use of that loaded term, Ulevitch defended the choice in an interview. "One, the user is forced to use this, at least out of the box, and gets a crappy experience for his trouble. At the very minimum, it's adware, but I think it does border on spyware."
The Google-Dell results from a mistyped, truncated, or non-existent URL differ dramatically from those generated by Google on a PC without the browser redirector, added Danny Sullivan, a noted search analyst and the editor-in-chief of SearchEngineLand.com. Typing "microsoft" minus the ".com" on a Dell brings up a page with five sponsored advertisements preceding the first actual link. Entering "microsoft" in Google on a non-Dell machine, puts a link to the real Microsoft.com site at the very top of the page.
"Google could easily direct you to the Microsoft site, but they choose not to here," said Sullivan. "That goes against Google's core mission of organising the world's information, and is counter to Dell's statement's last year about the Google deal helping consumers. I don't understand the features here that are helping consumers."
While Sullivan doesn't think the browser error redirector meets the definition of spyware, it may be adware. "But there's no doubt that there are people confused that this is happening," he said.
"Google has the technology, obviously, to resolve mistakes," added Ulevitch. "But to most [Dell] users, it's not at all obvious what's being done with the redirector. My main beef is that this is being done in a hidden, non-transparent way."
Ulevitch's complaint also stems from the fact that the error redirector breaks some of OpenDNS' functionality. If an OpenDNS user types "digg.xom" by mistake, their browser pulls up the correct "digg.com" instead. But the redirector breaks the free service's typo correction - as well as the browser shortcut feature it unveiled last month. "Google's application breaks just about every user-benefiting feature we provide with client software that no user ever asked for," Ulevitch said.
"Obviously we have a vested interest, in this," acknowledged Ulevitch, when asked about blog commenters taking him to task for criticising Google. "We don't make a dime when we correct typos. We do make money on full-word searches, but those aren't impacted by this [Google/Dell error redirection]. What they're doing is not right for the user, not right for the web publisher and not right for the brand holder," said Ulevitch.
"Google usually puts users first, but they made a mistake here," he said.
Google and Dell did not immediately reply to requests for comment on the factory-installed browser redirector.