RealNames Temporarily Suspends Registration Of Generics

RealNames Temporarily Suspends Registration Of Generics

From The Search Engine Report
Jan. 4, 2000

Last month, I reported how RealNames had been allowing some companies to register generic terms as RealNames Internet Keywords, a significant change in its previous policy against generics. Now RealNames has temporarily suspended the registration of generic terms altogether.

"There were multimillion dollar deals that we've had to suspend that we're not going to sign now," said RealNames CEO Keith Teare. "It was a big decision to make."

The company is reacting to a recommendation from its Policy Advisory Board that a formal approval process for generic terms is needed to ensure that the overall integrity of the RealNames system is being maintained.

The policy board became involved about three months ago, after a RealNames customer and major web site operator tried to register a generic term as a RealNames keyword. The company was told that RealNames policy didn't allow them to register the word because it was generic, but then a competitor was later granted the term.

(Note: I wasn't able to get the an OK on releasing the companies involved before this went out. If this comes through later, I'll update this article online to name them)

That the word was later allowed underscores the "confusion" over generics that RealNames has dealt with for much of last year, Teare said. The company began assigning more and more generic terms, in particular to companies that also owned the generic .com equivalent.

"We ended up almost accidentally allocating generics only to the .com owners," Teare said.

The policy board disagreed with the accidental policy that had emerged. "Generic .com companies and their non-generic .com branded competitors should be allowed the opportunity to vie for the right to have the generic category," its recommendation of Dec. 15 declared.

The board further outlined some main criteria that it felt should be considered by RealNames in determining if, and to whom, generic terms would be assigned:

+ Current user expectation.
+ Ability of the requesting company to maintain or build user expectation, as evidenced through the degree of marketing commitment the companies would be willing to undertake.
+ The financial proposal to RealNames for resolution of the generic term.

Of these three criteria, I'd only support the first -- current user expectation. For instance, I'd agree that most users currently would expect that the RealNames keyword "Amazon" should navigate them to the Amazon web site, not present them with a list of sites that might be related to that generic term. It makes prefect sense to evaluate other generics like this and assign them as appropriate, which is something RealNames has always done.

I find the second criteria alarming. It basically says that any company which can convince RealNames that it will spend a lot of money in an attempt to make itself synonymous with a generic term should be considered for that term. So potentially, if Amazon were to pledge to spend millions marketing itself as findable using the RealNames keyword of "books," RealNames might consider granting it that term.

This is particularly disturbing because the company would immediately benefit from the term, even it if hadn't yet earned the user expectation. Overall, the assignment of generic terms is tricky enough without RealNames essentially encouraging companies that haven't earned a generic identity to seek them.

That leads to the third criteria -- the fact that the financial deal proposed to RealNames should be taken into account. How much RealNames will make off of selling a generic keyword has nothing to do with whether that term is appropriate to be issued, and this shouldn't be part of any review policy.

The exact criteria that will finally be used remains for RealNames to develop. Teare said that he expects the company will have a generic term approval policy in place and be ready to consider generics again by this April. He also predicts the policy will mean RealNames will be less liberal about generics than it has been recently.

"Our feeling is that there will not be lots of generic keywords assigned, because of this policy," Teare said. Furthermore, "If a customer really wants it, we'll open it up not just to them, but also to others in their category." In other words, deals will no longer be cut quietly on the side. If someone like Amazon wanted to register "books," other companies such as Barnes & Noble would also be invited to contend for it.

Teare also stressed that money would not be everything, when it comes to granting generics. "It doesn't relate at all to how much is paid or even who is the highest bidder, but to the ability to communicate their Internet keyword," he said. That means that potential generic term holders would have to make a strong case that promote their sites using the RealNames keyword.

As for the deals already done, they'll remain, for the time being. "We have to honor existing contracts, but at the conclusion of those contracts, the keywords in question would go into the [approval” process," Teare said.

A final comment on this issue. The policy board's letter to RealNames makes a point to delineating between "search" vs. "navigation" events. Search is where you are presented with a list of possible choices, because it is impossible for the service to know exactly what you want. Navigation is where a person is taken to one particular place, and it's what RealNames is all about.

"Navigation is about going to one place, not to another list of choices. We support the company's position that to present a list when a generic term is entered would be contradictory to the company's mission and service value proposition," the board wrote.

What RealNames needs to keep in mind is that its main distribution method is through search engines. In those places, it does a great and needed job in helping them with navigational issues -- the RealNames link of "Amazon" taking you straight to, for instance. But when RealNames forces generic terms into a navigational role, it weakens the value of its system at search engines by reducing choice and confusing consumers indeed wanted a selection of sites.

This is something the policy board itself recognizes in its recommendation letter. "The transition in consumer behavior from search to navigation is not an easy one. It requires that the company make difficult choices that might have an interim effect of creating a certain degree of consumer confusion," it wrote.

Unfortunately, board seems to assume that consumers will ultimately learn to navigate, rather than search. That's not going to happen. People will always know brands and want to reach those brands by navigating to them. But likewise, people will always be in situation where they need a list of companies providing particular goods and services, which they will obtain by searching.


RealNames Slipping Generics Into Specifics
The Search Engine Report, Dec. 6, 1999

Discusses the mixed signals RealNames has been sending about generics, which are supposed to be corrected when the new generic terms policy is in place.

Using RealNames Links

Describes how to find RealNames links at major search engines, including Google, which added them in December.