What’s In A Name?

RealNames, a provider of a pioneering alternative to the domain name system, will cease operations June 28, having failed to renew an important partnership with Microsoft.

Internet Explorer provided “native” support of RealNames “Internet Keywords.” These ordinary words (not domain names) were linked to Web sites. For example, “united airlines” was a RealNames keyword that lead to the United Airlines site.

Microsoft, its primary distribution partner, was owed $25 million for RealNames “resolutions” delivered over the past two years. The software giant expressed concern about the quality of the keywords.

Microsoft’s the bad guy, at least according to RealNames founder and former CEO Keith Teare on his Weblog and in comments he’s made to the press.

Microsoft’s impetus in not renewing with RealNames was a desire for complete control over the user experience, especially to steer users to Microsoft-owned content, Teare says on his blog. He writes:

As far as I can see, the non-renewal of RealNames’ contract was because Microsoft wants former keywords like “IBM ThinkPad” to result in a MSN Search page rather than going to the IBM ThinkPad site at ibm.com. And it wants control over the user experience.

500 million uses during Q1 suggests many people disagree. I am one of them. The browser is being turned from a conduit for a naming platform into a conduit for MSN Search. Once again, I do not dispute your right to do this. I do suggest it is wrong headed and narrow in its vision.

Misleading stories about RealNames selling “generic terms” will not wash, especially when terms like “cars” and “software” consistently point into Microsoft properties. Who is it that wants generic terms?

Teare suggests Microsoft’s patent for “Flexible Keyword Searching” indicates a rival keywords system it can completely control is in the works.

Microsoft disputes any notion it plans a business redirecting ordinary words as RealNames does.

“There’s no concerted effort of us getting into the redirect business,” said John Krass, MSN Search’s director of business planning. “We’re not getting into selling redirects as a business, which is the thing we were accused of.”

Krass did say there are terms, as Teare notes, that do redirect straight to Microsoft properties. He said these are long-standing. The emphasis going forward will be resolving ordinary words to search results at MSN Search, deemed to provide a better user experience.

“[With] a list of choices, people aren’t going to say, ‘That was weird,'” Krass said.

Krass means if someone entered a common or generic term into a browser, it can be difficult to know which site to direct her to. Where should someone go if she tried to navigate to “notebook batteries”? A list of search results is likely to be less controversial than sending her directly to a site.

Poor user experience is another reason Microsoft said it chose not to renew the RealNames deal.

“It wasn’t a great user experience based on what the program evolved to,” Krass said.

Teare countered the “revocation rate” of sold RealNames by Microsoft was a tiny 0.14 percent between July 2001 and March 2002, suggesting user experience must have been good, otherwise Microsoft would have ordered more names cancelled.

Krass said the rate is low because Microsoft didn’t have staff to review all the names for quality, something it was told RealNames would do.

Who’s holding the smoking gun? I’d place it in the hands of RealNames. The company made so many shifts since it launched, it’s been hard to keep up.

Originally, generic terms wouldn’t be sold. Indeed, entering a generic term brought up a search results page similar to MSN Search from a RealNames search engine.

Later, generic terms were sold — for big bucks when the right company was a customer. MP3.com managed to get “Mp3” and Jobs.com got “jobs.” A change came in 1999, with an announcement the sale of generic terms would be greatly restricted. Later, generic terms were again sold.

The actual product sold was hard to follow. RealNames keywords were initially sold on a flat-fee annual basis. Later, pricing might be negotiated based on popularity of the term or the size of the client. A three-tiered listing of packages was introduced at one point. The last offering was better, just two types of keywords sold and clearer differentiation between categories.

RealNames moved to a reseller model last year, creating new confusion. Salespeople contacted people in the U.S. trying to sell RealNames keywords, but not necessarily creating trust in the product. Here’s a message I received from a reader in April:

A salesperson called trying to persuade me to buy keywords from him that, when typed into the Internet Explorer browser, would take searchers directly to our company Web site.

We sell telephone logging recorders, so when an unsuspecting person searching for our type of product types “telephone call recorder” into the browser, if we have purchased that keyword, they end up at our site.

It’s bad enough we have been forced to pay to be included in many search engines and to buy keywords that allow us to be at all visible, but now we are supposed to compete for these keywords because if we don’t, searchers end up at someone else’s site…

This salesperson represented that this program was sanctioned by Microsoft itself. This… may not be true, but if it is, the future of Net surfing looks grim indeed. There must be some kind of connection, because if Internet Explorer zaps you straight to these Web sites, Microsoft must be involved.

This message was one of several I received from readers who were confused about what was being sold, whether it was legitimate, and who was behind the program.

Distribution was RealNames’s undoing. RealNames didn’t start with Microsoft. It began with a browser plug-in download. Distribution increased dramatically with a series of search engine deals. That culminated in the Microsoft win and native support within IE.

Then, Google, AltaVista, and Go.com dropped RealNames early last year. RealNames put all its eggs in Microsoft’s basket, something Teare says the company felt comfortable with, given Microsoft owned a 20 percent stake in RealNames.

It was the wrong gamble. Blame Microsoft? It didn’t ask RealNames to become nearly 100 percent dependent on it any more than a casino asks you to bet everything on a game of chance. RealNames made a choice.

Sadly, RealNames was the leading candidate for a more sensible Web site addressing system, an alternative to the continuing fiasco of domain names. With no viable namespace system, companies can look forward to endlessly registering new domains to protect their trademarks and brand identity.

Search Engine Marketers: Include your company on SEMList.com before the list launches June 24th.

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