Real Name Tops At AltaVista
AltaVista is now listing Real Name addresses at the top of its search results, a move which makes it much easier for web marketers to be found for their company names and which may help some users more easily find what they are looking for.
Real Name is an alternative web site addressing system from Centraal Corporation. The system allows people to reach web sites by entering words such as "Barnes & Noble" into their browser's address box, rather than having to enter a URL such as "http://www.barnesandnoble.com."
Until the AltaVista deal, the system's biggest problem was that it only worked for those with Real Name-capable browsers. That meant downloading special software, which is a hurdle in the way of widespread acceptance.
Centraal hopes to solve this problem by getting Microsoft and Netscape to build native Real Name support into their next browsers. But the AltaVista partnership, which began in May, could allow the system to fly regardless of this. That's because it solves a bigger problem of economically making search engine results more relevant for some searches.
Consider things from a web user's point of view. Imagine you want to go to Nike's web site. What's the address? Net savvy people will guess at "http://www.nike.com" and get there just fine. In fact, depending on your browser and the company's web server, you can get away with entering "nike.com" or even just "nike."
It's a bit more complicated with Barnes & Noble. Is it barnesandnoble.com, barnes-and-noble.com or barnes&noble.com? The last example isn't allowed under the current domain name system, but no doubt people try and feel frustrated when nothing loads.
Real Name suggests its system will be the solution to all this. However, net savvy and non-savvy people already have a solution they've been using for years, when they don't know an address. They turn to the search services, just as people turn to a phone book or directory assistance when they need a phone number.
That's the basic reason why search services have become so popular. Likewise, it is the reason many web marketers become so frustrated with them. The boss goes to a favorite search service, looks for the company by name, can't find it and goes on the warpath. Get it fixed, the boss demands.
Fixing it might not be easy, for some people. The answer may involve understanding meta tags, appropriate page titles and the need for decent copy at the company's graphic heavy web site.
Here's where Real Name provides a simple solution. It sweeps aside all those complications. Instead, you just pay your $40 annual fee, and you'll come up tops for your name on AltaVista, guaranteed.
At this point, the old "selling listings" alarm bells are probably ringing with some people. Has AltaVista sold out? Shouldn't only the most relevant results come first? Hold your panic, and let's see the system in action.
Remember Nike? Do a search for "Nike" at AltaVista, and as happens with many major companies, no pages from the Nike site are top ranked. Before the Real Name partnership, both Nike and someone looking for the company were probably disappointed. Now, Nike's site gets top billing because the company has registered its name as a Real Name address.
Ideally, AltaVista and the other search engines should ensure that Nike and other important companies are top listed for their names, anyway. But to do so, they might have to manually configure or tweak the results for particular names.
That's not too much work when you are talking about ensuring that just Fortune 1000 companies are top listed for their own names. But what happens when smaller businesses want to ensure they come up first for their names? That's more time consuming.
The partnership with Centraal provides a solution. It gives people a way to get on top for their names in AltaVista without the service having to lift a finger. In fact, AltaVista even collects a share of the revenues.
Nor are search engine users harmed. AltaVista's own results are not altered one bit. The Real Name link is simply prefacing them, which makes perfect sense. Nike and other companies should come up first for a search on their own names. It's what both the company and most search engine users would expect.
Sound perfect? There are gray areas and a big fat loophole that allows the "selling listings" fears to return.
First the basics. Names can be had for $40 per year, and you can have as many as you like. However, companies cannot register generic terms, and only trademark holders can register their own names. Thus, Nike can register its name, but it can't register "shoes."
What about companies with generic names? Amazon.com has the Real Name address of "Amazon," which is also a river and a race of mythical warrior women. Why is this allowed?
Real Name CEO Keith Teare says that exceptions will be made in some cases, such as to support what a user might expect. On the web, someone searching for "Amazon" probably wants to reach Amazon.com. Thus, Real Name feels it makes sense to allow Amazon that term, he said.
What about cases where two companies have the same name? Real Name prefers that neither registers the name. Ideally, Apple Computers and Apple Records will each register those two-word names. But in the end, Real Name will side with what it believes a user expects, and that will probably be the larger and better-known company.
Now for that loophole. Real Name allows slogans to be registered or generic terms to be appended to company names to make addresses. At the moment, this provides a way for companies to indirectly receive traffic for popular keywords.
When a Real Name address has been registered, clicking on the Real Name link takes you directly to the registered web site. But when no name is registered, as in the case with a generic term like "books," clicking on the link instead takes you from AltaVista to the Real Name search engine. There, it displays sites that it thinks matches your query.
These sites are drawn from three separate databases. The first is made up of paid Real Name addresses, which number less than 10,000, at the moment. The second contains 30,000 addresses that the company editorially created to seed the index. The last has information from 1/2 million web sites that the Real Name system has crawled.
Sites are displayed generally in that order: paid names with the search words in them come first, then editorial picks, then crawled picks. However, popularity also comes into play. The system measures which links users choose, so an editorial pick can appear higher than a paid link, if enough people click on it.
Thus, while no one can register "books," Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com and others have been busy registering names that contain that word, which in turn puts them high on the Real Name search engine results. For example, Barnes & Noble has registered "Barnes & Noble Computer Books."
At the moment, significant numbers of people are clicking through, even on generic terms, so this strategy of adding generic terms to a company name means that sites do indeed have a shot of making the top of the list for generic terms, albeit in a roundabout way.
About seven million people clicked on Real Name links at AltaVista during the first week of launch, about a 20% clickthrough rate, Teare said. Eventually, this clickthrough traffic may diminish. The Real Name address link is new to users, and I suspect many of them are clicking on it when doing general searches without really understanding what it is.
In fact, the presentation at the moment is entirely unclear. For example, a search for "microsoft" yields this link:
- Real NameSM Address - microsoft
Subscribe your company, brands and trademarks to the Real Name System.
Ideally, the main link would say something more appropriate, such as "Microsoft Web Site." That would be more useful to users. Certainly the description should be about the site, rather than the service.
Both Teare and AltaVista say the actual format will likely evolve. At the moment, the emphasis is providing information about the service to better educate users and potential customers.
Also, Teare points out that over time, people may recognize what the term "Real Name Address" means, in the same way they know what to do when they see a web address displayed, or if they see a word after "AOL Keyword."
The big question is whether AltaVista will continue to display a Real Name address link when no Real Name exists. If so, the clickthrough loophole will continue, and no doubt warm the hearts of many web marketers. If not, having a variety of Real Name addresses that incorporate generic terms will be less important.
Another loophole is that plenty of people are getting away with registering generic terms, at least for the time being. The Real Name system doesn't inherently know that a term shouldn't be registered. Instead, someone can go in and register something like "books" temporarily.
After a few days, someone from the Real Name staff will review the site and its address to ensure it meets the company's guidelines. "Books" obviously wouldn't, so the person would receive a rejection letter, with some suggested alternatives. They also wouldn't be charged for the original attempt.
Teare said Real Name expected this to happen, and it is actually putting it to good use. Once a term has been rejected, it's flagged so that it can't be registered again. Eventually, the generics will be eliminated.
"The system learns over time. We think that’s the best way to build up the dictionary," Teare explained.
So what's next? Teare has talks with the browser companies planned, but he also hopes to be making deals with other search services. It could be that the Real Name service will be popping up elsewhere.
Real Name Service
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AltaVista picks Real Name for registered word search
Ad Age, May 11, 1998
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The Search Engine Report, March 3, 1998
GoTo.com sells top placement, generic terms and all, and is proud of it. Founder Bill Gross says economics provides the best form of relevancy. Read more about the service.