RealNames Slipping Generics Into Specifics
From The Search Engine Report
Dec. 6, 1999
RealNames has had a long-standing and laudable policy of not selling a generic term to any one company. For instance, Amazon.com couldn't purchase the name "books," nor could Ford purchase the name "cars." But in the past two months, the company has cut two significant deals that go against this policy, enabling both its partners and RealNames itself great benefits. It also appears to be backing away from its policy on generics altogether.
The slippage began in October, when a deal with MP3.com was announced. Users could now enter "mp3" followed by any topic such as "jazz" or "Alanis Morrisette" into a RealNames-enabled search engine to receive a link taking them directly to information about that topic at MP3.com.
For instance, go to AltaVista, enter "mp3 jazz," and you'll see a link just above the first numbered listing that says "Click on this Internet Keyword to go directly to the mp3 jazz Web site." That's a RealNames link, and if you click on it, you wind up at page within MP3.com that lists music genres.
This deal also had the convenient side-effect of turning the generic term "MP3" into a RealNames link leading directly to MP3.com. Again, go to AltaVista and enter "mp3," then click on the RealNames link. Voila -- now you're at MP3.com. This is even more significant than you might realize, as I'll explain below. But first, let's talk about last month's deal with jobs.com.
With MP3.com, the RealNames press release played up how the deal benefited Internet users, giving them the ability to lookup information about MP3 files by artist or genre. In contrast, I felt the Nov. 16 press release for jobs.com gave at least as much if not more weight to the benefits that jobs.com was gaining from the deal, rather than Internet users.
"Online recruitment company obtains exclusive use of Internet keyword 'jobs'," the subhead says, followed by this key statement in the second paragraph: "With the use of Internet Keywords, jobs.com expands its Internet reach to millions of job seekers who use search engines and browsers such as Alta Vista, GO Network, MSN and Internet Explorer 5.0 all of which recognize Internet Keywords. Now anyone can find jobs.com by simply typing the Internet Keyword jobs in the search command located on any of these prescribed systems.
Indeed, in one fell-swoop, jobs.com has essentially catapulted itself to the top of these major search engines for the popular generic term of "jobs," via the backdoor that RealNames offers.
We've had a limited form of this backdoor at AltaVista since RealNames was introduced there in May 1998. Remember that I said you couldn't register generics? Search for "books" at AltaVista, click on the RealNames link that appears, and you'll be taken to a list of RealNames that contain the word "books" in them. A significant number of people click on the RealNames link for generic terms, then to some of the sites listed. It's one reason why registering RealNames is a smart move. As a webmaster, I'm an unabashed fan of this backdoor.
But what happens at AltaVista isn't the case at MSN Search or Go. Both feature RealNames links as prominently at AltaVista, if not more so, but they will only feature the links if RealNames has an exact match for the search term. For instance, a search for "amazon.com books" generates the RealNames link at the top of MSN Search (with the little RN next to it) because Amazon has registered that exact name. But search for just "books," and no RealNames link appears, since there is no such name registered. LookSmart has also recently changed from what I'll call a "loose" to a "exact" use of RealNames data.
In my opinion, the exact use of RealNames data by search engines is better for users. It makes the link more valuable to users, because they're growing to understand that when they click on it, they are taken to one official web site associated with that term. In short, Go, MSN Search and LookSmart are doing it right, despite the fact that if they made the change to loose usage, they'd benefit financially. That's because they share with RealNames the revenue generated from every click on those RealNames links. For some high traffic corporate clients, RealNames is apparently charging up to 40 cents per click on its links.
Now you can see why the MP3.com and jobs.com deals are so significant -- because "mp3" and "jobs" are actually registered, they will cause RealNames links to appear at the top of even search engines that have an exact usage of RealNames information (note: this isn't happening for jobs.com at MSN Search yet, but it's what should happen unless MSN has stepped in to specifically override this behavior or, more likely, is using its own, slightly older RealNames database).
The deals make you wonder if this means any company with a generic .com address and enough money will be able to cut similar deals with RealNames. If so, it even more so greatly enhances the value of generic .com addresses. It certainly goes against everything RealNames stated about generics and specifically domain names using generics when it launched on AltaVista:
"Organizations that own domain names may want to enter the main text of a domain name as the Real Name Address. For example Mecklermedia, as the owner of internet.com, may want to use the Real Name Address 'Internet'. Since 'Internet' is a generic term, this would not be appropriate. However, 'Internet.com' can be entered as a valid Real Name Address. Users of the Real Name System can then type the domain name as a Real Name Address and arrive on the Mecklermedia site.
I almost hate to use that quote, since Search Engine Watch is published by Internet.com (which was spun off from Mecklermedia). But it was the example RealNames gave in its FAQ back in May 1998, and it speaks directly against the type of deals it has cut with MP3.com and jobs.com. Moreover, RealNames has consistently stuck with this policy.
"The RealNames service is designed to take Internet users directly to a specific web page, which means that certain types of words and phrases are unsuitable as RealNames. Generic or common terms and personal names, for example cars, books and flowers or John Doe, are not unique, and do not help to deliver users to a specific web page. We want to find a RealName for you that identifies your site AND distinguishes it from all other sites. For this reason, generic or common terms and personal names are not permitted as RealNames," stated the RealNames "Namespace" policy in Dec. 1998.
And here's a quote from the August 99 RealNames FAQ: "Generic terms will not be assigned to one entity."
Exceptions to this policy have been allowed before now. For instance, RealNames has resolved "Amazon" to Amazon.com and "Apple" to Apple.com for some time, even though both are generic or could refer to multiple companies. The reason has been that the user expectation on the Internet is so strong between those words and those companies that it was justifiable to make such a connection.
But do most users equate "MP3" with MP3.com? I would doubt it. I'm even more doubtful that even a significant minority of users expect that "jobs" should equal jobs.com. It's not the market leader for online jobs (that's apparently Monster.com, which just became AOL's job search engine partner in a $100 million deal). It wasn't the top rated recruitment site in a recent poll by PC Computer (HotJobs.com took that honor). Yes, jobs.com is one of the web's leading recruitment sites, but it's a tough sell to say users expect jobs.com when they search for "jobs."
You'll notice I quoted a lot from past statements on the RealNames site. That's because if you go exploring today, you discover the company is sending mixed messages regarding its policy on generics.
For instance, the current FAQ page says terms are rejected initially if they are generic, and indeed, if you try to register a generic term, the system tells you to try again. The Easy Overview page flat out says, "Make sure your chosen Internet Keyword complies with our Namespace policy. It must be appropriate and unique, it must link to a live site, and it cannot be a generic term."
In contrast, the all-important Namespace Policy no longer singles out generic terms as being against the rules. And in another FAQ, it's clear that generics are now very much for sale:
"Q: How much does a generic Internet Keyword cost?
A: Each generic term is subject to a negotiated agreement. The cost in every case is uniquely established."
Ironically, this clearest statement that RealNames has changed the rules mid-stream comes within the area about the Policy Advisory Board that it formed in July of this year. That board is supposed "to ensure the company is held accountable for its decisions to the Internet community as a whole and to introduce an element of self-regulation into the RealNames approval process," the RealNames FAQ stated earlier this year, when the board was introduced. While it is made of what sounds like independently-minded members, they all nonetheless have a stake in RealNames.
Elsewhere in the Policy Advisory Board area, we find more specific information relating to its approval of generics, oops -- I mean what are now "so-called" generics terms:
"In the case of so-called generic terms, we will only approve such a term as an Internet Keyword if there is a sufficient user expectation associated with it. However, we cannot assign generic Internet Keywords to just anybody. Apple is a generic term and it is Apple Computers Internet Keyword. MP3 is MP3.coms Internet Keyword. So long as a generic term is sufficiently branded by a subscriber, then we can assign the Internet Keyword to them. In general, generic terms will not be assigned where the user expectation is insufficient or where the subscriber will not be prepared to market the Internet Keyword to users widely enough to establish this required user-expectation.
So apparently, even if users right now don't generally equate jobs.com with the term jobs, the fact that jobs.com will spend oodles of money trying to create this perception (with no guarantee of success) is enough for RealNames to sell them or anyone else the generic term.
I wanted to talk with RealNames about this apparent change in direction and opening up of generics, so you could hear its point of view. However, the company is about to have its IPO shortly, and it's been advised not to speak to the press about anything, it appears. Companies about to go public are legally required to observe a "quiet period" before hitting the market. Oddly, the legal eagles advising RealNames seemed to have no problem the company issuing a very loud press release about the jobs.com deal, which sparked my initial questions about this whole affair.
"You're right. It is a bit odd to be able to issue a release but not conduct any interviews. However, those are the quiet period guidelines we've been working under, and my legal contact just reiterated today that we will not be able to respond to your inquiries related to jobs.com. Sorry I cannot be of more assistance. As soon as we're able we'd be happy to discuss these issues with you," said RealNames spokesperson Katie Greene.
Well, we can at least check RealNames own S-1 filing for that IPO to so if it has anything to say on the generic issue:
"In addition, it is important that our customers, users and distribution partners perceive us as a neutral third party in assigning Internet Keywords and in maintaining the integrity of our Internet Keyword data. This process will be particularly difficult for us if and when we assign so-called 'generic' Internet Keywords such as 'cars' to a particular party. Even more than common brand names, generic Internet Keywords could be appropriately assigned to multiple parties, leading to potential conflict with customers, partners and potential customers once assigned to only one party. If we are unable to establish ourselves as a neutral third party, it is possible that we would lose users, customers and distribution partners and lose the support of the Internet community more generally."
If RealNames is aiming for a "neutral third party" reputation, then it might consider rethinking more deals of the type described above and the new policy statements it has on its web site. They send out entirely the opposite impression.
RealNames Namespace Policy
You can also access the RealNames FAQ and Easy Overview from here.
Policy Advisory Board Area
Information about the board, and also where you can follow links to see the more specific comments about generics by following the "Policy FAQ" and "Approval Policy" links.
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