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Why Your URL Bar Matters, and Why Silicon Valley Should Take Note

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If you use the Internet, you've likely used something in the last month, but it's not something at the top of your lips: the URL bar. It's also called the "address bar" or the "direct navigation bar" among techies. Here's why it matters -- a lot.

The Uniform Resource Locator (URL) was created in 1994 by Sir Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the Internet, and the URI working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the brainchild of collaboration launched at the IETF Living Documents "Birds of a Feather" event in 1992. The format combines the pre-existing system of domain names (created in 1985) with file path syntax, where slashes are used to separate directory and file names. The purpose of this common vernacular (much like telephone numbers), the lingua franca of the Web -- the URL -- was to easily enable companies and countries to 'talk to one another' using the same Internet syntax. So: It's little wonder the Internet started to flourish in 1995.

Who cares? This means to shut down the browser bar in a country (on, say, .ca in Canada) means shutting down the commercial Internet in all of Canada and all the corporate communications (e.g. emails ending with .ca) with a top-level country code domain name. It would also mean Canadian companies would have a difficult electronic method of communicating with, well, anyone. The economic impact of this would be devastating for one company, let alone an entire country. The idea that the address bar will disappear is like saying the Internet will disappear. The URL is the glue that binds the Internet together, even more important than html or email, which both depend on Web domains to exist; just think of your own company's domain name (e.g. joebloggs@companyyouworkat.com).

An example of a typical domain name or URL is "http://www.example.com". Based on my anecdotal review of Internet registries, such as GoDaddy, there are approximately 400 million such domains and growing. The traffic on such domains varies enormously from #1, Facebook.com, to tens of thousands of 'parked domains' that receive just 1-2 visitors or even none. Some 'parked domains' don't get 'clicks' because the domain owner ceased business, or because he or she may be deceased.

Then there are "sub-domains," or pages within domains, that is, domains with suffixes, thousands of which are being created every minute. An example of a typical such URL would be "http://en.example.org/subpage". Experts stopped counting the number of such sub-domains at around 40 trillion many years ago. There could be as many as 250 trillion+ today.

According to one Fairwinds report, manual direct navigation in the URL bar accounted for 38 per cent of Web site traffic. WebSideStory's StatMarket division (now a part of Omniture) estimated, prior to 2008, that more than 67 per cent of global Internet users arrive at Web sites through direct navigation. That means that direct navigation is almost as important as Google in reaching your destination of choice. Direct navigation is like a search bar. And because such a large per centage of users navigate the Web without the aid of search engines, understanding the changing dynamics of direct navigation is valuable. And Silicon Valley -- which is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into "Big Data" collection start-ups, may want to pay attention to this massive phenomenon with huge implications for the business models they think will make their firms oodles of cash on exits.

In 2010, Google was cited (notably in research by Amy Langville of the Mathematics Department of Charleston College) saying that 15 per cent of Web users use the URL bar to reach ads/buying decisions as opposed to hyperlinks. Note: this is not a statistic of the per centage of people who use the URL bar vs. search but rather a per centage of those who simply reach their ad destination via the URL bar as opposed to hitting on an ad hyperlink. Actual use of the URL bar thus has to be higher than 15 per cent if that Google figure is right.

According to independent consultancies that specialize in branding domains, like Fairwinds Partners, the proportion of users who make a manual type-in mistake on a popular domain is significant.

To give you an example, Goole -- a town and inland port in the North East of England with a population of about 18,000 and with legal rights to this similar-sounding name to Google, is in the top 13,000 websites in the world in terms of Web traffic.

Flicker.com used to be an independent site. Then Yahoo, which owns Flickr, the photo-sharing site, took control over it. Fairwinds, which advises companies to protect their brands, calculated that much of Flicker.com's traffic was manual type in. That spelling had 3.6 million unique visitors in one year prior to the Yahoo acquisition of the site.

In late June 2010, Facebook recovered many trademarked domains, including Facebok.com, after a lengthy lawsuit. According to Facebook's own SEO team, that Facebok.com domain alone received 250 million unique visitors per year.

More current trends and the Big P: Privacy

Web and tablet access to sites is rising dramatically. Many mobile users prefer direct navigation URL bar search to searching in Google or Bing or other search sites. The reason is this: the URL is bigger and mobile phone displays are rising. Comparing across categories, (study by Marketing Land, 2012), the results are clear:

Travel:
Direct navigation: 43 per cent
Search engine: 24 per cent
Autos:
Direct navigation: 46 per cent
Search engine: 37 per cent
Restaurants:
Direct navigation: 44 per cent
Search engine: 33 per cent

According to our own internal data at The RIWI Corporation, typos on direct navigation visits have not been rising on major trademarked domains, such as Facebook, which has been successful at winning so-called UDRP rulings against so-called "typo-squatters" that leverage typos for advertising purposes or selling cookie-based data to third parties. (Note: Our company, The RIWI Corporation, does not advertise, nor does RIWI's patented domain intercept technology for global surveys sell cookie-based data (for example, collecting information on what sites you've visited in the past) to third parties for 'behavioral retargeting'.)

But here's where a few multi-billion dollar companies -- and Silicon Valley, enamored of Big Data for ad-targeting technologies -- should take notice. Collecting certain types of data collected passively off of mobile devices, as regulated in Europe, may soon be similarly regulated in the United States.

(I owe the insights in the next two paragraphs to Tod Sacerdoti of BrightRoll, the superb online video advertising services provider). As Sacerdoti explains in a recent article, the two largest sellers of online advertising are Google and Facebook; these two companies make significant revenues from ad publishers, that is, from people who hit on hyper-links. Traditional companies that produce content (e.g. Fox or CNN) and the Internet companies that generate content (AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft) are all losing market share in ads.

Content is losing its royal revenue-generation status. Part of the reason for this trend is increased usage of Google and Facebook, and, in the case of Google, it is much harder for SEO companies to 'trick' Google into placing their ads prominently (e.g. using keywords and tags). These sophisticated algorithms allow Google and Facebook to sell more ads, which is core to their business model. Part of this phenomenon is the growth of mobile apps (Zynga, Pandora) and the increase in video consumption (YouTube, Hulu, Netflix) -- all of which are driving attention and advertising dollars away from display advertising on all content sites (e.g. ESPN or AOL) as opposed to sites such as Facebook or Google.

But please take note Facebook and Google: The significant business challenge and risk for Google and Facebook -- and the reason why consumers are demanding larger URL boxes on all browsers (e.g. Firefox, whose URL bar had been easy to hide until there was a consumer revolt) to search for what they want (e.g. paypal.com) -- is because Google and Facebook are making their ad revenues off algorithms that use Web histories to figure out what you might be searching for. So, when users search in the Google search box, they may now encounter links they do not want, since Google algorithms are far from perfect and Web consumers are more and more sophisticated. After 2012, Google made paid ad links more prominent at the top (shaded but barely distinguishable from normal hyperlinks) (and on the right hand side) after someone searches on a search term, and the searches that jump off the top page are often not the best answer for the user. For example, if you have visited a Western Union site in the past and type in "money transaction" into Google, you may get a Western Union site on the top first page of Google, but what you really want is paypal or a web-currency converter. Web users are very discerning.

In my opinion, Web users are starting to get annoyed by, and distrust the value of, search results coming at them based on their Web browsing histories. Anja Lambrecht and Catherine Tucker at London Business School just reported in an A/B test: "We found that on average, dynamic retargeting (ads showing the specific hotel people looked at) is less effective than showing a generic ad for the company (in this case, the travel site). This means that when [search and other] firms aim to sell to customers who have been on their site before, they are, on average, better off advertising just their brand, rather than a specific product or service."

Autocomplete features have, in my opinion, been a boon for direct navigation, since users are frustrated by auto-complete and the auto-complete features are often wrong (for complex, non-premium, sites); users often disable the features.

Browser-suggestion based on where your browser is thinking you may be heading is also a boon for direct navigation, since many users do not like this feature since it is frustrating to them. Consumers know better than browsers where they want to go in the search bar, unless it is a premium well-known domain, like Facebook. The same applies for futuristic voice-recognition; yet that never successfully took off with phone numbers, which are, incidentally, reducing in prominence, size, marketing and visibility compared to URLs on all major billboards and television and sports ads: the power of the brand of the URL (and the rising price companies are willing to pay for them) speak to the growing brand power of the URL.

App-based URL linkage may ultimately one day be more popular on tablet for premium sites like LinkedIn, but users limit the number of apps on tablet for load (and physical space) reasons, and, just like favorites on your browser, this habit will likely be highly limited and fleeting in usage.

What is the result of all this? A survey (2007) from Opinion Research Corporation for LeaseThis.com found that Internet users prefer direct navigation more than had been previously reported. Sixty-four per cent of Internet users said they bypass search engines and type keywords into their browsers attempting to be directed to the right URL. Other reports have found that around 17 per cent of Internet searchers use direct navigation instead of search engines. The survey also revealed that 26 per cent of users say they bypass search engines at least once a day. Thirty-eight per cent said they bypass search engines weekly or monthly. Fifty-three per cent of users surveyed said they would always or sometimes bypass search engines if they could find what they are searching for by typing the category name into their browser.

Jonathan Boswell, CEO of LeaseThis.com, told DMNews, "In general, [these results imply] that owning the category is important and increasingly integral to the success of a business." "A short, memorable URL that is descriptive of the brand is vital to business. In the context of LeaseThis.com, the results show that search marketers have access to these brands and are strategic in gaining ROI."

Finally, privacy: This is a critical trend in the growth of URL bar usage. Companies such as LinkedIn -- after more than 6.5 million passwords were potentially compromised by Russian hackers in 2012, it advised all its users to manually use the URL bar, or follow a trusted bookmark, to reset their passwords. World security authorities such as Ankit Fadia have long advised audiences in public talks to "always manually use the URL" bar to avoid phishing attacks that may be embedded in emails. There is growing Web consumer awareness and sensitivity to the risks of malware and viruses occurring from phishing attacks (i.e. just hitting on the embedded email link and being redirect to an unsafe site).

In a nutshell, the Web consumer is always right. And Internet trend prediction is often wrong. Remember pets.com? Great domain name, terrible business model - and that was a model suggested by very smart, very respected people in venture funding and Internet advertising.