Navigational Keyword Space Heats Up; Watch Those Claims!

In October, I wrote about confusing claims being made by companies selling navigational keyword products. Sadly, readers continue to report to me that such claims continue, and the situation is likely to get worse, as the keyword navigation space heats up in 2003.

Netword, a long-time player with a navigational product, is expected to relaunch its offerings this week. The company is trying to reassert itself against iGetNet, a navigation company that launched last year and which has gained awareness among advertisers primarily due to the many resellers hawking its product. Also in the wings is a new product tied to the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration of Web Services system, or UDDI. In addition, I know of two other new companies that appear to be pushing their own unique navigation systems.

In this article, I'm going to examine some of the claims that have been passed on to me by readers approached by iGetNet resellers. In addition, I'll look more closely at the new Netword product. I hope this helps you pick through the hype and confusion to make a correct choice about whether to buy a particular product. I also expect to do a follow-up article in the near future on some of the other systems.

iGetNet Revisited

My last article on this subject, RealNames Clones Causing Confusion, explained how iGetNet has built an "IGN Keywords" plug-in for Internet Explorer that lets users enter common words into the address bar of Internet Explorer in order to reach web sites.

iGetNet has a network of resellers that push its product, and reader Ed Loewenton of Turner Toys got a phone pitch out of the blue in December from one of these, BD&M.

"The salesperson claimed it was an outgrowth of the Microsoft monopoly settlement," Loewenton emailed me.

The iGetNet system was not something that came out of the monopoly action against Microsoft. In addition, the reseller further tried to suggest a Microsoft connection in a follow-up email sent to Loewenton:

"Six months ago we began introducing clients to a new technology developed by Microsoft. The technology is called Natural Language Navigation (referred to as 'keywords'). This new technology allows a computer user to type in a single word, or a word-phrase, that best describes your business. Rather than being connected to a search engine, they reach your web address and shop your firm rather than the firms of your competitors," the email pitch said.

Microsoft has introduced no such keyword technology. iGetNet and other keyword systems work only for those who install Internet Explorer plug-ins. Anyone can build a plug-in for IE without Microsoft's permission or cooperation.

The only navigation provider to ever have a relationship with Microsoft was RealNames. The company closed last year after losing a deal that made its keyword system "built in" or "native" to Internet Explorer. Since then, Microsoft has NOT made any other navigational company's keyword system native to Internet Explorer and consistently confirms that it has no such relationships, every time I ask -- and I did so again just last week.

BD&M now appears to be out of the reseller game, having ceased operations according to a notice on its web site. However, other resellers may still be making misleading claims. For instance, reader Alan Trombetta says that he was told by another iGetNet reseller in December 2002 that iGetNet's software "will be included in all computers shipped next year." That's not the case.

A third reader claims to have been sold a two word phrase by an iGetNet reseller, only to discover that the phrase had already been sold to someone else. After great difficulty, involving many follow-ups with both the reseller and iGetNet, a refund check was finally issued, the reader said. The reader also complained that he was initially given the impression that the iGetNet system was native to Internet Explorer.

"[The reseller” first told me it worked with Internet Explorer. I had to pry it out of the guy that you had to download a plug-in for it to work," the reader complained.

As for iGetNet's side of the reseller problems, I expect to be coming back to this in the next issue of the newsletter. We couldn't arrange a time to speak before this article was written, so I'll give you the company's perspective next time, as well as an update on how its system is growing.

Netword Reborn

I stumbled across the fact that Netword was relaunching its keyword navigation product because a reader got a pitch from a Netword reseller and wanted guidance. I checked out the reseller's web site and couldn't believe how the information there differed from that on the Netword site itself. As it turned out, this is because Netword was allowing some resellers to pitch its new product before releasing it. Information about the new product should appear on the Netword site itself later this week.

Netword has offered navigational keywords since 1997 (the company dates to 1996). However, the formerly-public company was merged with privately-held Home Director last April, then the technology, trademarks and patents were rolled into a new company called Rabbit Marketing Services in December, according to Gary Fisher, vice president and chief operating officer of Rabbit Marketing. So while Netword as a company has apparently ceased to exist, Netword as a product remains.

As with iGetNet, Netword operates only within browsers that have a special plug-in. To date, there have been 1.8 million downloads of the plug-in, resulting in 10 million navigational requests per month, Fisher said.

That's far short of the "over one billion searches a month are conducted using Networds" that was claimed on the Netword reseller site that I examined on behalf of my reader. Fisher said last Friday that this claim was due to a mistake on the part of the reseller, and when I rechecked the site today, that figure was now being cited for searches across the entire internet, rather than only within the Netword system.

Buying Networds

Under the old system, only one person could purchase a particular Netword, which worked the same for anyone with the Netword plug-in. The system also only worked in the address or "URL bar" of their browser. In the new system, Networds can be purchased to work in certain geographical areas. In addition, they will now also generate what I'd call pop-up ads, when you use certain search engines.

To explain better, let's walk through the system first from an advertiser's point of view. You want the Netword of "cars," and you want to buy it so that it works in the address bar, as well as on the available search engines of AOL Search, Google, Lycos, MSN Search, Netscape and Yahoo.

After indicating your distribution choices, you'll then get an option to geographically target where your Netword will work. For example, you could make it operate for only users within California. Alternatively, you could choose to have it work for all users in the southwestern United States.

How much you pay is determined by a complicated system. Netword gauges how popular a term is by using a search term frequency tracking service. It then calculates how popular the various search engines are deemed to be and how many users Netword believes it will have in any particular geographical region. All this and more goes into a behind-the-scenes mix that's largely irrelevant to the advertiser. Instead, the advertiser simply sees a form that lists prices.

To have the term "glasses" work for just address bar users within California would be $15 per year. Want the entire US? That's $348. Want the URL bar and all the search engines that Netword targets? If I added the prices correctly, that's $4,684.

Prices include unlimited resolutions, over the year. In other words, it doesn't matter how many people search and find you via Networds. You'll still pay one flat price for the entire year, Fisher said.

Netword For Users

Now let's understand what happens from a user's perspective. Let's assume that you are using the new Netword client that's going to come out. When you install it, you'll be asked for your ZIP code. That's how Netword plans to do its geographical targeting. Of course, nothing prevents you from lying about your ZIP code. In addition, if you fail to provide one, then Netword will simply assume your ZIP code is 00000, Fisher said.

Once installed, if you enter the word "glasses" into the address bar of your browser, Netword will route you to the owner of that keyword, assuming there is only one person who has purchased it. This will happen even if that person purchased only a particular geographical location. So, if you bought "glasses" only to work in California, it will still work for all Netword users anywhere, if no other person has purchased the term.

What if two people have bought it, say one person who wishes to target California and another who wants to target New York? Then Netword will send the person to whichever "owner" is closer to the user's location. So if the user is in Colorado, that state is closest to California, so the California-targeted Netword will be used.

How does Netword work in search engines? The company actually has no relationship with any of the search engines it targets, nor are Networds somehow embedded in the search results from those search engines. Instead, the Netword client will detect if a user does a search at a particular search engine. When this happens -- and if the search involves a phrase that's also a registered Netword -- then a pop-up window will appear showing the Netword-owner's web site or ad.

Netword itself doesn't call this a pop-up window. "We don't condone it," Fisher said, about pop-ups. Instead, Netword prefers the term "split screen." That's because the original search results will be arranged to fill about 60 percent of your screen, while the Netword-owner's page will be arranged to take up the remaining portion.

"We consider it an advertisement that's being put up alongside the result, much like a glorified sponsored link," Fisher said.

To me, it's still a pop-up ad. It might be arranged nicely for the user, but the advertiser's page still will pop-up automatically. In addition, Fisher said anyone with software that prevents pop-ups from appearing probably will not see the screens.

Impact On Old Users

The user perspective I've described above is only for people using the new Netword client, which hasn't yet been released to the public. What about those 1.8 million downloads I previously mentioned? Those are people using the "old" client. They'll soon get an email from Netword asking them to upgrade. If they do, then Netword's ambitious geographical targeting plan may work -- assuming that people provide accurate ZIP codes, of course.

However, for those who fail to upgrade, it's unclear how Netword's geographical targeting will work. Netword has no idea where those using its old client are located at. In a situation where two people have purchased the same Netword, there's no ZIP code for it to analyze in order to break the tie.

"I can't say what will happen with the old client, about what people will see," Fisher said, about geographical targeting. As for search engine integration, users of the old client won't get that at all, he confirmed.

What To Do About Navigational Keywords?

I started out this article by saying that you can expect to find confusion over navigational keywords systems to grow this year, because we will likely see new companies and products enter the space.

One of the biggest problems in this is the reseller system. As I've shown, some resellers certainly have made claims that are dubious about the products they pitch. In my past article on this subject, I've also cited the confusion caused when resellers "rebrand" a navigational product with their own name. It's incredibly difficult to know who is really behind some of these products.

One solution would be at least for the companies that run these programs to list all of their authorized resellers. Netword plans to do this, and the company also says that all resellers must offer the same price for keywords they sell, in order to eliminate the problem of resellers undercutting each other or inflating the price of a keywords to many times beyond its "list" value.

To date, iGetNet doesn't list its resellers, and I would hope this changes in the future. As mentioned, I expect to bring you an update from the company, so perhaps we'll get an answer about whether this change will happen.

For the advertiser considering products from these or other companies, be sure to understand exactly what you are getting. Are you guaranteed a set number of visitors? Will you be cut-off after you receive a set number of visitors? What happens if your reseller goes under?

I think advertisers should also be wary of the pitch that they need to act now or lose out. At its height, the most successful system of RealNames was hardly a make-or-break advertising venue. These new systems are even less compelling. That doesn't mean they don't have value, but neither should you feel you're going to be locked out of having people ever find your web site, if you don't by particular keywords.

Also be aware that with any company or reseller, you may see major brand names mentioned as buyers of these programs. That can give a program a sense of legitimacy and perhaps pressure you into thinking that you need to act immediately. However, some of the brand names listed may actually be linked to keywords that have been given away for free to make a program more effective for users or where someone has enrolled in an affiliate program offered by that brand.

Another tip: pay by credit card. It gives you a much better chance at getting a refund, if it turns out you are dealing with a bad reseller.

Finally, just as I was about to post this article, I received email from two readers, one who heard I was going to be "backing" the Netword system "soon" and another who reported getting a pitch "that you personally are endorsing their platform and you actually are part of their company."

Let me make things perfectly clear. I have no connection with Netword. I am not part of the company. I am not backing the product or endorsing the product in any way. If anyone has told you this, you have been mislead, and I certainly wouldn't purchase a product from them.

Since those reports, Netword has since sent a memo out to all of its resellers informing them that they should not be making such statements.