www.what?

More and more, global brands are messing around with one of their most important online identifiers: their URLs. In plain language, a company’s domain name is its Internet address.

A few years ago, the brand challenge was to secure every possible exposure for the URL in all communications materials. Having achieved maximum exposure, companies have moved on to a new problem: which URL to use. A growing number of companies, especially those purveying a multitude of products or those with massive global representation, invent as many URLs as they do Web sites.

Take Coke. The URL that most likely comes to mind is www.coke.com or www.coca-cola.com. Both URLs work. Do both lead to the one and only official Coke home page? No. Type in www.cokecce.com or www2.coca-cola.com, www.ltg.coca-cola.com or www.coca-colascholars.org. Coke promotes hundreds of domains all over the world. For this giant, a universally recognized and respected brand, confusion is unlikely. It’s the exception. Not every brand can spend several billion dollars annually on marketing to build and maintain a name. A mistake with something as vital as a company’s URL can be fatal. Here’s why.

One Company Equals One Address

Your URL is your lifeline to the interactive world. Type almost any well-recognized brand name into a search engine. Ninety-nine percent of results will refer to private individuals, competitors, or articles about the brand. Few, if any, of the results are likely to be the official brand Web site.

Ensuring customers visit your site, and your site alone, is challenging enough. If you promote several Web addresses across several countries, you add to users’ confusion. The reality is that your brand should have only one URL, not several.

Now, this shouldn’t keep you from investing in online promotions or differentiating individual products. Take Microsoft. Its main site is www.microsoft.com. For Microsoft’s Microsoft Office brand, for example, the company would not use www.office.com. Microsoft uses www.microsoft.com/office. This is smart, for obvious reasons. In doing this, it ensures we all remember the Microsoft URL, that Office is a Microsoft product, and even that we are able to guess the addresses of its products and subsites. Its PowerPoint application, part of the Office suite of software, is www.microsoft.com/office/powerpoint. I shouldn’t need to ask you what the URL for Microsoft Excel would be. It should be obvious, because Microsoft predictably uses a clear and logical URL structure.

Even if you’re the biggest, wealthiest company in the world, consistency is critical. Creating a URL structure that enables customers to guess most of your addresses is key to their ability to stay in touch. This is all the more important in a world where more and more ad campaigns, Web sites, billboards — you name it — appear daily. Simplicity is also vital. It’s a quality that counts for everything: your campaign, your home page, your message, your brand, and your URL.

Cut down your URLs and stick with one clear structure. It’s not only cheaper, it helps your customers remember your brand — and how to find it online.