Sunday, 8 May 2005

Google Web Accelerator (GWA): panacea, or peril?






The best thing since sliced bread, or the worst threat to personal privacy? It's a moving target, but I've attempted to summarise thoughts, tips and links about the Google Web Accelerator, which was released in beta on Wednesday 4 May 2005, and which I've been trying on both Internet Explorer and Firefox. This post is based on my own experiences as well as the experiences of others, mostly gleaned from the GWA Google Group.

Key points about GWA

In a nutshell, these in my view are the main points about GWA:
  1. Broadband - you install it on your PC and it's supposed to speed up Web surfing (but not other downloads) for broadband users - but it won't help much with dialup. So not much point bothering with it (probably) if you're on dialup, then. (Oddly, in the preferences page there is an option to set for dialup, which somewhat contradicts their "this is not for dialup" position...).
  2. Windows XP or 2000 only so far - not Mac or Linux.
  3. Privacy and security - big concerns for users:
    • Google will (like your ISP) be able to track where you've been and the exact content of what you've looked at - they will get a record of all Webpages you visit, and even a copy of those pages, including email and private messages. Yes, and including password-protected pages.
    • Worse still, GWA has reportedly been showing users other people's pages (such as private messages on messageboards!) Even pages that only an authorised user who enters the right password should be able to get into (if that user had previously visited the page with GWA enabled). And it seems that people suddenly be bestowed with other users' rights, like delete rights, too.
    • You see Google's version of the Webpage your browser has requested, not the original. They shouldn't tamper with it before passing it on to you, but they could.
    • Google also "temporarily" keeps copies of your cookies from sites you visit, so they'll know the contents of all your cookies too
    • They do say they won't accelerate (and therefore cache,("i.e. store a copy of) info about secure site you visit (which begin "https://"), such as some email sites, but they could if they wanted to, and they still know which secure sites you've visited
    • Their privacy policy for GWA is, frankly, minimal, and the links to the privacy policy page don't work (for me they mostly went to their Toolbar privacy page). UPDATE: their new privacy policy page. Direct links: GWA privacy policy (though some may have trouble getting to this page - I can only get to it if GWA is on, else I get a page not found, or the Toolbar privacy policy page instead!) and privacy FAQ
    • (Some good summaries/discussions of these concerns: Blog News Channel; Fantomaster; this thread, and another thread)
  4. Webmasters' bane? Many webmasters don't seem happy either, and have even blocked people using GWA from visiting their site (a good summary is on the Fantomaster "Forbidden" page you get when you try to access the site using GWA):
  5. Not quite there yet - it should have had a lot more work done to it before releasing it even as a beta:
    • for some people it breaks or crashes IE or Firefox (or in some cases Firefox extensions); or it breaks other Net-related apps (generally it worked fine for me though with both Firefox 1.0 and 1.0.3 - I updated Firefox after I installed GWA - but links which I visited can suddenly appear unvisited, and the highlighting for prefetched links sometimes disappears...)
    • for others it actually slows things down...
    • there have been difficulties with some firewalls (especially Zone Alarm) or similar e.g. Norton Internet Security, though I was OK with Sygate Personal Firewall after saying OK to letting it through
    • it'll scupper your getting into many sites where you have to login, while even for non-login sites some people get taken to a weird URL http://webaccelerator.google.com/full with a "page not found" message, or found Webpages won't load; for many it doesn't do anything at all, constantly showing that it's disconnected (I've only had that once - stopping it, closing browser and restarting both seemed to fix it, for me)
    • on your work PC it may not work at all or may need tweaking, particularly with firewalls needing authentication
    • conversely some people, e.g. behind corporate firewalls, have been able to get into sites they couldn't before! (companies etc who have blocked certain sites from their users may not be too happy about that...)
    • wrong things may be prefetched or cached, delivered to the wrong user (or both?) - with disturbing news as mentioned above about forum users, on refreshing, being served other users' pages including their private messages, passworded pages etc; while links being prefetched which shouldn't be (e.g. it effectively "clicks" on "Delete" or similar links in some webpages, ignoring "Are you sure?"!). Interestingly, I can't get to their correct privacy policy page unless I enable GWA though with GWA disabled I can get into the Toolbar privacy policy page it seems to redirect me to... so there are odd cacheing or other issues even with Google's own pages.
    • there are other niggles like links in the Preferences or GWA help pages going to the Toolbar help or privacy policy pages instead of the GWA ones (for me, anyway - maybe because of a GWA problem with the cache/prefetch, rather than the wrong link being written in?), the "Learn more" link in the performance data page not going anywhere, contents links in the Webmaster help page not working - so it's not as professional an offering as one would expect from Google, even for a beta release.

Tips and Suggestions

If you decide to use it or just test it, I'd suggest that:
  • after installing it, don't visit any Webpages until you've set your GWA preferences (accessible through clicking the icon in the system tray or browser toolbar) to exclude:
    • any sites you don't want Google to know you visit or whose contents you don't want it to store or know about
    • any sites requiring login - or the login may not work and you'll spend ages as I did wondering why you can't get in
  • before visiting any sites of that kind in future remember to disable GWA or in your preferences exclude the specific site (or when you are at the site you want to exclude, selecting Don't accelerate this website after clicking the icon in the browser toolbar) e.g. before logging in
  • better still, use the free and fast Opera browser to visit any Websites you don't want to risk Google knowing about or recording! And to visit any sites which block GWA users
  • also stop GWA before you submit a Webform containing any personal details like your email
  • in Firefox look for the GWA icon in the top right hand corner, same level as the menubar (took me ages to find!)
  • for Webmasters who want to block GWA, Fantamaster explains how to block GWA.

How does it work?

It seems to combine: using a gigantic proxy server, cacheing Webpages (and tomorrow: cache the world??) on Google's own huge servers to send you pages supposedly more quickly than the original site you want to visit could; and downloading invisibly in the background in advance (prefetching), and storing in a GWA cache on your own PC, Webpages it guesses you may want to visit e.g. because you've hovered your mouse over a link (plus pages you may not want!). It's not made clear enough what's stored in whose cache: Google's or yours, and it's not explained how it decides which links to prefetch.
Prefetched links are indicated by a double-underline, looking like this
A good concise summary is at SearchEngineWatch.

How do you know it works?

Because Google tells you so! They tell you how much time they think it's saved you via the performance data page (click the GWA icon to find it) and next to the GWA icon in your browser toolbar.

But seriously, subjectively a lot of people have noticed a change (though personally I haven't seen much difference in IE). However, for some people GWA has slowed down rather than increased their browsing speeds.

Odds and sods

  • Where's the cache? - on my PC, the GoogleWebAcceleratorCache is stored in C:Documents and SettingsmynameLocal SettingsTemp - not perhaps the cleverest place for it, as many people regularly housekeep and clear out their Temp files. To find out how much space it's taking up on your hard disk, go to the preferences page, it's in the "Clear your history" section.
  • What are the exes and where do they want to go? - the operative files seem to be GoogleWebAccClient.exe and GoogleWebAccWarden.exe (which launches the former) - my firewall, Sygate Personal Firewall, says GoogleWebAccClient.exe tries to connect to webaccelerator.google.com while GoogleWebAccWarden.exe wants to go to cdp.google.com and I have to let them through before I can access any Websites at all. Oddly, sometimes I get the former exe trying to connect even to sites I've told it not to accelerate…

Settings

Accessed via the GWA preferences page:
  • Type of connection (DSL, dialup, cable modem) - even though they say it won't help much for dialup!
  • Prefetching of pages - enable/disable; highlight prefetched links or not
  • Cached pages - set how frequently GWA checks for newer versions of cached pages
  • Clear history - with a click (that's the GWA cache on your PC)
  • Don't accelerate these sites - list sites which GWA should not accelerate (i.e. presumably not vist and cache, and perhaps not prefetch either). Domains or subdomains only, not specific pages.
In the Google Group a bookmarklet has been posted by the author dbloom to finetune a couple of these settings. As far as I can see, you can set in finer gradations the amount of acceleration for the internet connection from dialup, DSL and cable modem to 1, 3 and 6 respectively with the ability to set values in
between those numbers, and change how frequently GWA checks for newer versions of cached pages, with 0 for always check, -1 for check if content is likely to change, and -99 for never check. I've not tried changing those settings yet myself as I'm not sure how they work and in what way they'd help, so I disclaim all responsibility, I just mention this in case anyone is interested!

Links

In Google we trust?

GWA doesn't seem to be helping Google's credibility in the eyes of many ( e.g. Something Awful: "...Google is Microsoft without the bad reputation"; and this thread). Is Google taxing users' loyalty and trust in its brand too far by releasing GWA without addressing the problems some of which I've summarised above? Lots of people seem to have a kneejerk "hate Microsoft, love Google" reaction, but as some have pointed out, Google is in the business of making money. It may have been a small cosy "do no evil" startup, but it's mutated into a huge corporation which effectively dominates the Net search world as much as Microsoft has dominated the world of desktop operating systems, with shareholders it has to keep happy first and foremost. Google has, with good reason, been much loved and trusted by many, techie and non-techie alike: that has given it a lot of power. But I firmly believe that power corrupts, and power without responsibility is sadly too common even amongst democratically elected politicians who are supposed to be responsible; never mind corporations whose power, equally real and probably greater, derives from popular usage and the vote of the almighty dollar.

Google has built up and been trading on its superb brand, cannily and, mostly, successfully, but if it's not careful, if (to put it colloquially) people start thinking that it's trying to take the mick, its users may yet hold to account in ways it may not expect or want. Innovation is a good thing, yes, and in many respects I am a huge Google fan myself. But I am not sure what Google's motivation is in risking its reputation by rushing out something which seems to have so many problems and may provoke a bigger privacy/security backlash than even Gmail and Google Desktop Search.

Of course, GWA is free and you don't have to use it if you don't want to. So far, in 3 days, it says the total time I've saved is 9.1 minutes counting both IE and Firefox - small beer compared with the time I spent headscratching about being unable to get into login sites, excluding any sites I can't get into etc - yet it's using up 17MB of my diskspace! But I'm going to keep trying it for now, practising what I preach about excluding certain sites or disabling it from time to time and using Opera often too. And maybe Google will provide the further info users are crying out for about how GWA works, and expand on their privacy policy. We'll see. I suspect I'm probably going to end up uninstalling it soon… UPDATE: yes, I've uninstalled it. Much easier that way.



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10 comments:

Sindre said...

Thanks alot for writing such a thoroughly article on this subject! I'd love to read it right now, but it's 4 am so I'm off to bed :-P

I haven't got any troubles with the privacy or ethical issues...
But two things;

(1) The software was released from alpha prematurely (crashing Firefoxes looks bad...)
(2) It screws up webmasters' statistics.

RedRyder said...

Another informative, detailed examination from you, nice work. It kinda verifies what I thought when I first heard of this a couple of days ago. I'm on dialup so it's not for me. And all the issues that you've highlighted are some of what I thought would be a problem. And if you're already on DSL or cable, do you really need things to speed up? Especially web pages? From my browsing on high speed connections it seems unnecessary. But I have to admit, like most, when I hear "faster" it still peeks my interest.

Tabitha said...

for a giggle hehe

Thankfully God, I mean Google cant control all the bottlenecks that thwart my surf.
I’ll wait for nanobots, precogs and a sexy future with holographic decks, I think that future belongs to Fuji hehe.

ChickyBabe said...

Another well written and informative article. What would we do without you, Improbulus?

I tend to agree with redryder. If you already have broadband, how much faster is this going to make it, when it doesn't speed up downloads.

PS 3am??

Anonymous said...

I have been using it with FF, Moz, IE and Opera ... I must say this is a killer app

Improbulus said...

Thanks for your comments, guys. Yeah I'm always looking for more speed, but as I mentioned, 10 minutes saved in 3 or 4 days isn't really much, and also interestingly I twice had to restart for my browsers to go anywhere and my email to talk to any mail servers - it may be a coincidence but I didn't have that issue before I installed GWA. I've now uninstalled it as, for me anyway, it was more trouble than it was worth, not going to the right pages, not getting into sites etc. I'll just have to get 2MB broadband!!

ritzy said...

Thank You! Since I have very good experiences with accelerators on dial up connections, I was thinking about trying GWA, just for fun, can´t say I feel I need it. Now I know it´s not worth the trouble, nor security risk. Thanks again for being so informative and easy to understand, glad you´re keeping the good work up!
/ritzy

Improbulus said...

Glad you found it helpful ritzy, thanks for your comment. :)

Anonymous said...

You have the link incorrect to the privacy page (maybe they've since fixed this) in your article.

http://webaccelerator.google.com/privacy.html

Improbulus said...

Thanks anon. I think they've probably changed it since I wrote that post. Will edit that.