Is Google using captchas (those goofy looking scraps of text that you need to retype to verify your humanity) to prevent automated systems from using their search engine? Sadly, I believe so. Yesterday, my friend sent me a screenshot of a page that Google gave him when he did a Froogle search for "assorted leds". The page had a captcha on it, and stated that his search looked like an automated system. Interestingly enough, the error message also suggested that he install a virus scanner or anti-spyware solution.
I attempted to replicate the message myself, by manually typing in the exact same URL as in his screenshot, as well as trying the Froogle search myself. All of my efforts failed. I have known this gentleman for a long time, and I know that he would never try to fake something like this or otherwise pull a hoax. I am positive that he received this error. In addition, the site Spy Bot has confirmed this error message. It is quite possible that he was randomly selected to be used as a test of a system in development. Google is known to do this. Regardless, this is real. A brief amount of additional research shows this to have been around since spring 2005, at the very earliest.
That being said, it is not very pleasant idea at all. Google pushes mashups pretty hard, and many Web sites rely upon parsing the results of Google's searches for some of their functionality. After all, this is what "Web 2.0" is supposed to be about, right? And Google is supposed to be the poster boy for "Web 2.0."
One person says that Google told him that this is what Google's response is when they experience a heavy traffic spike. Another person claims that this is a result of someone else behind the same proxy server actually having a virus on their computer. Others claim that this is to prevent search engine optimization (SEO) companies from doing their jobs. Regardless, the reason behind it is not clear.
Sadly, none of the sources I found informed me what the "virus checker" or "spyware remover" links pointed to. I am very interested to see if this was pushing a Google affiliate or not. [Update 8/25/2006: my source of the original screenshot dug the page out of his browser's history. The link for antivirus is http://www.download.com/Antivirus/3150-2239-0.html and the link for spyware removal is http://www.download.com/sort/3150-8022-0-1-4.html Those links are different from the links providing by following Download.com's menus, which does not clear Google from possibly pushing trafific from an affiliate. Added disclaimer: Download.com is a C|Net site, as is TechRepublic.]
One this is certain: Google is pushing very hard on the idea that if you are going to use Google on your Web site, you need to get not just the results themselves, but the whole shebang. Check out their API section. Not a single one of the APIs returns XML (or similarly useful result types) to a server as a service to be used as needed. They are AJAX snippets designed to embed Google functionality into a page, complete with Google's ads.
While I understand and respect Google's right to allow third-party access to their information on their terms, I have a few problems with the related hypocrisy here. First of all, Google is nothing but a parasite. If every Web server blocked Google's automated robots from indexing their sites, Google would die an immediate death. Yet this is exactly what Google is doing! Obviously, no one would actually do this, but that is not the point. Google is working to prohibit others from doing exactly what it is doing. The other group of hypocrites is the folks who hold Google up as some shining example of "Web 2.0." Google is no such thing. Mashups only work as far as the server that is serving the containing page has some sort of control. I have said it before and I will say it again. I would rather go without the content at all, then to allow someone else to be controlling even a single ad that the user will perceive to be mine. Google is really "Ads 2.0." They are taking the old banner ad model to its disgusting end. I would probably not care so much, but very few sites, once they get on the AdSense bandwagon do not offer a paid, ad-free version. There is simply no way to avoid it. Within a few years, the Internet will resemble a Phillip K. Dick story.
This whole thing is yet another signal that Google is headed for Microsoft levels of partner abuse. To be honest, I am simply flabbergasted that this did not break into the mainstream IT news ages ago. Unlike Microsoft, becoming a Google "partner" is very simple and tempting, and free. And unlike Microsoft, Google makes its living on recording, exploiting, and manipulating the private information of their end users. It is indeed a sad day when I can honestly say that Microsoft has serious competition for the title of "company I distrust."
Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.