VeriSign’s Controversial Redirect

VeriSign is now resolving requests for non-existent .COM and .NET domains to an error page that features a search engine that it operates called Site Finder, a move that’s quickly raised controversy.

Previously, such bad requests would have resulted in an error, which in turn would be handled different ways by various browsers.

Consider a request for the non-existent ww.amazon.co.uk Web site. Entering that into Internet Explorer produces an error page saying, “We can’t find ww.amazon.co.uk.” The page provides an option to search the Web using the Microsoft-owned MSN Search service. It also offers the helpful message, “Did you intend to go to one of these similar Web addresses?” with the correct www.amazon.co.uk site listed as a link.

You can still see the above error message in Internet Explorer because the domain I used in the example does not end in .COM or .NET. For these domains, a change VeriSign made two weeks ago means you’ll be redirected to its search engine (if this isn’t happening yet for you, it’s because it will take a few days for the new system to fully propagate across the Web).

The move, only days old, has already proven controversial. VeriSign is accused of hijacking traffic, though who exactly “owns” the traffic to non-existent domains is unclear.

Indeed, back when Netscape introduced “Smart Browsing,” it faced accusations from .COM domain owners that it somehow robbed them of traffic. Prominent blogger Dave Winer was disturbed at the time those entering just the word “scripting” were not resolved to his Web site, scripting.com. A story I wrote back then, Netscape Smart Browsing Available, Debated, explains the situation in more detail.

Today, Internet Explorer dominates browser market share. IE has its own mechanisms that deal with bad domains or a particular page that no longer exists (Searching & Navigating Via Internet Explorer covers this, though the RealNames system no longer operates). If anyone is being “robbed” by VeriSign, it’s Microsoft. Yet Microsoft itself has come under accusations of somehow robbing people of traffic because of its own resolution systems.

In general, the main concern shouldn’t be who owns the traffic, but whether user experience is improved. VeriSign argues it is.

“Like many registries, we are continually exploring how to enhance the Internet user experience, and Site Finder does that for millions of users each day. And it reintroduces consistency into the mistyped domain name experience, since Site Finder is implemented uniformly regardless of the particular application,” said Christopher Parente, senior manager of naming and directory services with VeriSign.

I’ve generally been impressed with how Internet Explorer handles things. It remains to be seen whether VeriSign will live up to or exceed that standard. To get an early measure, I tried a few queries:

wwwww.amazon.com: MSN failed but VeriSign succeeded in suggesting www.amazon.com as a useful alternative.

www.serchenginewatch.com: Both MSN and VeriSign succeeded in suggesting www.searchenginewatch.com as a useful alternative.

ggoogle.com: Both MSN and VeriSign succeeded in listing www.google.com as a useful alternative.

wwww.quicken.com: Both MSN and VeriSign listed the www.quicken.com site as a useful alternative

Overall, VeriSign certainly appears no worse than what MSN has been offering. My main disagreement is that the alternative addresses, presented under the “Did You Mean?” heading, appear only after you see a search box. The same is true with MSN. In both cases, it would be better to flip the order.

I do dislike the fact VeriSign’s service feels more commercial than MSN’s. The VeriSign error page offers a “Search Popular Categories” option. Since it was a navigational request that originally generated the page, rather than a search request, offering this type of suggestive sell to browse paid listings from Overture feels exploitive instead of useful.

Ultimately, it will be interesting to see how MSN and AOL respond. My assumption is both parties may be able to configure their systems to avoid the new VeriSign error pages, if they choose.

I asked MSN if Microsoft could override VeriSign’s new error page but didn’t get a direct response to the question. MSN instead offered a more general comment:

“MSN remains 100 percent committed to providing our customers with the most relevant search results. VeriSign’s decision to redirect traffic from misspelled queries isn’t of great concern to us, because the amount of traffic driven to MSN search through misspelled queries is insignificant. We are also focused on generating traffic from satisfied and repeat consumers rather than counting on mistyped query traffic,” said MSN product manager Karen Redetzki.

This column was adopted from ClickZ’s sister site, SearchEngineWatch.com. A longer, more detailed versionof this column is available to paid Search Engine Watch members.

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