War for the Start Page

Back in 1995, Home.Netscape.com was the most popular page on the web.

After Yahoo, MSN and AOL.com came online, the fact that Home.Netscape.com remained number-one surprised me. The answer was that most people didn’t change the default settings of their Netscape browsers, and started each session there.

During the “browser wars” Microsoft fought to make its MSN the default start page by giving away Internet Explorer. The winner (surprise) was America Online, because it locked down AOL.com as the default.

Over the years many strategies have been aimed at seizing the start page. Computer makers made customized versions of partners’ pages the defaults on newly delivered computers. ISPs pre-loaded their own pages as the default. Local sites ask you to start with them – employers demand it.

Bribery was the logical next step. Many business plans now start with the proposition they will lock your start page to a default that plies you with ads and merchandise. I profiled one such free ISP recently, Worldspy.com. It may be a fair trade.

I thought Worldspy’s buying your default was the last word, but I was wrong.

How about stealing your start page, along with your default search page and your email signature? That, according to PC World, was the plan of AlchemyFX in Chatsworth, Calif., and its meta-search engine, GoHip.com.

GoHip is like dozens of other portals that have come out in the last year. (Wasn’t the shakeout supposed to take out all but two or three of these things?) The actual searches are done elsewhere, and it has dozens of links. It also has “guides,” which are thinly disguised ads. The left side of the page has more links (some framed by GoHip’s ad banners, some opened up in new browser windows) to sites with clearly defined markets like “news,” “sports,” and “software.” (Go.com sites are framed prominently.)

The trick is on a page advertising “free video“, a collection of Windows Media Player files appealing to 20-somethings, plus a pop-up asking if you want to load a file from GoHip. The file is irrelevant to the video (although the page doesn’t explain this) – if you have Media Player you can click on any link to see the film. The file is an ActiveX program that locks down GoHip.com as your start page, search page, and adds its ad to your signature each time you start your PC.

Finjan Software Inc., with its U.S. office in San Jose and research center in Israel, found out about all this. Their corporate slogan is “proactive defense against malicious code.” They not only posted details on their web site, but the address of GoHip’s own instructions for removing the ActiveX program. By February 21, GoHip had removed a link to the free video page from its home page although the page was still there.

The lesson is that 30 years ago we might have been crying for the government to do something about GoHip, but on the Internet, market justice is far swifter. Reputation and credibility mean everything. Remember that before trying any ethical shortcuts.

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