Monday, May 09, 2005

Google's Web Accelerator

Google released their "Web Accelerator" (beta version) this past Wednesday. It speeds up web surfing by preloading/caching all the links on a website while you are viewing the first page. When you click on a link, it pops up right away, because it was actually loaded in the background. You even get a report of "time saved".

Sounds like just the thing for online classes and research, especially if your home connection is slow, right? Well, maybe not. First of all, because of the amount of material that must be loaded, Google says that dial-up connections may not see much improvement. (If it normally takes 30 seconds to load a page on your dial-up connection, and there are 20 links on a page, it will take 10 minutes to pre-load all the pages. Chances are you are going to click on a link, which may or may not be loaded, before all the pages finish loading.) So this is really a broadband only application.

Second, the Web Accelerator loads all the pages linked from the page you are viewing (except links to secure HTTPS pages). This includes links for deleting information, changing your settings, ads, and sign-out/logoff. Some services became completely unusable because the logoff page would load as soon as the first page was displayed, bumping the user out of their account. Message board and blog users discovered deleted entries. (If the logoff or delete link goes to an actual html confirmation page, everything is fine; but if there is no confirmation or if the confirmation is via javascript popups, then the preloading really does cause logging off or deletions.)

Third, Google may "serve" you a previously cached version, including one cached during someone else's browsing. So you may suddenly appear to be logged in as someone else! This is actually less of a security risk than it seems. Since you aren't actually logged in as them, you can't do anything; but you could possibly be viewing someone else's info if it appeared on the cached page. Anything on a HTTPS secure site is not cached, so that covers most financial information, but I've had my email address appear on confirmation (thank you for signing up, etc.) and account data pages that aren't secure (most library login and account screens are not secure, for instance). Not to mention the confusion of even just appearing to be logged in as someone else. Google says that pages will be recached if they are "slightly" changed, but it's unclear what might constitute a slight change. You might be looking at old info without knowing it.

Fourth, everything viewed via Web Accelerator is funneled through Google's own servers, including all your viewing habits, your passwords and credit card numbers. (Luckily, you can turn it off.) Google says that no information is associated with the actual Google cookie that identifies you and your Google use history. But it is still a huge amount of data that could be associated with you if you visit any other personally identifiable sites (including Google's own Gmail and Google Groups). It's very valuable data even in aggregate, since it will produce a huge set of real web-users' real web habits. (Whether this is a problem or not depends on your view of information privacy.)

There is also the webmaster's end of things. Preloading completely messes up clickthrough statistics--measurements using what someone actually clicks on to judge popularity. It would appear that everything was clicked on, even if the person actually turned their computer off at that point. I also wonder how this works with clickthrough advertising (where the vendor is paid by the click). Webmasters can put coding on their pages to deactivate the caching, and many are scrambling to do so, but that leaves a lot of material that won't be protected simply because the site owner didn't know to, or didn't know how to, change those settings.

I am not planning to use Web Accelerator. I don't think I can truly recommend it, given the many concerns listed above. If you do decide to try it, I would be careful what you visit and avoid sites that have personal accounts that you might accidently change. You might want to turn it off for regular use, and only use it when you are truly "surfing", as opposed to checking your email or your library account. (Google is not accepting new users right now, but they say they are working on increasing capacity.)

Here are a few articles and posts listing some of the problems:
CNET--Google speed bump draws scorn
Yahoo News--Google's Accelerator breaks web apps, security
SearchEngineWatch--Google Web Accelerator Raises Worries
Buzzworthy (blog)--Not so fast, Google


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