Another URL Thought

I wrote some thoughts last month about how we choose to communicate URLs to people — what’s essential to getting the message across, what’s not, and what may be changing with time.

Tonight, while waiting for Gary Indiana to finally give the Clinton campaign the coup de grâce (Updated: OK, not quite, but really close), I saw a spot for a certain flower company. It is almost Mother’s Day, after all. “Which flower company was it, qwerty?” I hear you ask.

1-800-flowers logoIt was this one. And there’s the URL, right in the logo (assuming you ignore the flower growing out of the dot). You can read it out: “one dash eight hundred dash flowers dot com.” But you watch the commercial and there’s the founder of the company and his daughter (shades of Frank and Jim Perdue?) referring to it as “one eight hundred flowers dot com.” No dashes. Why are there no dashes? In my line of work, I advise people not to get domains with dashes, and a big reason for that is because it’s harder to communicate. But in this case, the dashes are there in the branding. Are they assuming people will think of the logo and know that when they think of “one eight hundred flowers dot com” they should remember that there are dashes in there? No, that can’t be it.

This is from the site’s About Us page:

Jim McCann, founder and CEO of 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, INC., opened his first retail store in 1976 and successfully built his own chain of 14 flower shops in the New York metropolitan area. In 1986, he acquired the 1-800-FLOWERS phone number and continued to grow his business under the 1-800-FLOWERS® name. His immediate focus was to create a reliable brand name built on trust, and over the next few years he achieved this through his understanding of his customer base and market. The next logical step was expansion, and McCann successfully expanded his business into other retail access channels-going online in 1992 and opening a web site in 1995. Today, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM® has a well-known web site (www.1800flowers.com), and maintains strategic online relationships with a number of online services, including America Online, Microsoft Network (MSN), and Yahoo!.

So whatever they were called from 1976 to 1986 doesn’t matter much. In ’86 they branded the company based on that phone number, 1-800-flowers.

The way we communicate phone numbers has certainly changed over the years. I believe everyone in the US has been on a system that requires them to dial 1 at the beginning of a long-distance call since the 1970s. We no longer say “area code” before announcing an area code. And it’s probably been thirty or forty years since one would identify an exchange (the first three digits after the area code) with two letters and a number, which was itself a streamlined version of naming an exchange for a place, followed by a number. Wikipedia notes that the Ricardo’s phone number on I Love Lucy was MUrray Hill 5-9975, which would later be referred to as MU5-9975, and later 685-9975. I remember this commercial from my misspent youth (spent in the glow of the eye of hell):

There was another hotel with ads that included a phone number with a full on “Murray Hill” exchange, but I couldn’t find that one.

But I digress. The point is, we know how to say a phone number. Even with all the changes that have taken place over time, we’ve never had to actually say “dash”. The hyphens were in there just to make the printed version of the number easier to parse. So if we know that 1-800-flowers can be read “one eight hundred flowers,” the people marketing the web site feel that we can look at that logo with its hyphens and hear the domain name spoken as the phone number with a “dot com” tacked on the end, and not have our heads explode.

Beyond that point, here’s the real point, courtesy of my pal the WebBug:

If I request http://www.1800flowers.com, the server returns the following:

HTTP/1.1 302 Object moved
Location: http://ww21.1800flowers.com/

A “temporary” redirect, but I end up at a domain without any dashes.

If I request http://www.1-800-flowers.com, the server returns the following:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Wed, 07 May 2008 05:31:28 GMT
Server: Apache
Cache-Control: no-cache=”set-cookie,set-cookie2″
Set-Cookie: JSESSIONID=0000UzUSX5tGcqe8AriacpxKyf7:120mbebeh;Path=/
Set-Cookie: ShopperManager/enterprise=d7b1c7dc-1bf6-11dd-b18b-cbe10af70195;Expires=Mon, 25-May-2076 08:45:35 GMT;Path=/
Cache-Control: no-cache
Pragma: no-cache
Expires: Thu, 01 Jan 1970 00:00:00 GMT
X-Powered-By: 1800Flowers web server
X-AspNet-Version: 1.21.366
Connection: close
Transfer-Encoding: chunked

No redirect. So both versions get me to the site, but excluding the dashes from my request does require the server to take an extra step. Should I take that to mean that the version with the dashes (the one that the logo looks like the domain name would be) is the default and the one without them (the one that you hear when they say the name) was set up to catch errors and keep the competitors from getting control of mistyped traffic?

One last thing to note, now that Clinton’s “apparently” won Indiana, according to MSNBC: In the footer of the site’s home page they’ve got links to other sites they run. Among them are 1-800-Baskets and 1-800-Greetings, with links anchored by “Greeting Cards” and “Gift Baskets” respectively. And the targets of those links? 1-800-Baskets is at http://www.1800baskets.com/ and 1-800-Greetings is http://www.1800greetings.com/. And just for fun, what happens when you add the dashes so the URLs match the company names on those two?

http://www.1-800-baskets.com/ returns a 301 redirect to http://www.1800baskets.com/ and http://www.1-800-greetings.com/ returns a proper 200, but the news isn’t quite as good as it appears. If I request http://www.1800greetings.com/ I get a 301 to http://1800greetings.cardways.com/cp001/clientinterface/creategiftcard.asp?cltid=121&returnid=0 (an affiliate deal, apparently), which looks like this:

Screen capture of 1800greetings.com

And yes, a request for http://www.1-800-greetings.com/ returns a 200, but it looks like this:

Screen capture of 1-800-greetings.comThe wrong site.

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Talking About a URL

.com keysWhen you talk about a URL, what do you say? Actually, before we even get to that, how do you say “URL”? I’ve already given my own answer away by writing “a URL” (yoo-arr-ell) rather than “an URL” (erl). Similarly, I make my living as an SEO (ess-ee-o) rather than a SEO (see-o).

Honestly, this interweb business is young enough that a lot of the terminology isn’t standardized, and similarly, many of the acronyms don’t have a set pronunciation. That will change with time, I’m sure. After all, nobody pronounces “scuba” (ess-see-yoo-bee-ay) — at least I hope not.

So, back to the question at hand: when you say a URL, just what do you say? Do you include all its parts, using the official generic syntax of scheme, authority, path, query, and fragment? Don’t be silly, of course you don’t.

As more and more people go online and become accustomed to these things, it’s become pretty standard to leave out the “http://”. Even the “www” (which really shouldn’t be necessary) is left out most of the time. Just look at an ad in print or on the eye of hell. The web site is usually just represented as domain.com. And you really can, in most cases, just type that into your browser’s location bar. The browser will go with the default protocol of http, and the server, when reached, will add a trailing slash and sometimes the www as well.

David LettermanOf course, there will always be exceptions, like this guy:

LETTERMAN: Can I just take a second here, Larry — I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt — to give our World Wide Web address. If people want to e-mail us, we’re on the World Wide Web as well.

KING: You are too? What is it?

LETTERMAN: wwwww.comcomcom — comcomdiggitydiggitydiggitydank.com –comdiggitywww.comdave.com. So give us some of that e-mail…

What about the directory or the file name? If you want to send someone to a document other than the home page, you have to go further than just the domain name, right? Nope. There are ways around that too.

CNN keeps their political news in a /politics/ directory, but apparently they were concerned that telling people to go to cnn dot com slash politics (which would end up taking them to http://www.cnn.com/POLITICS/ after the browser and the server had their way with the request) was asking too much of them, so they’ve made it easier. You can simply go to cnnpolitics dot com.

And what happens when you request that URL? Your browser adds the http://, so a request gets sent to the server at http://cnnpolitics.com. From there, you figure the server would tack on the www and the trailing slash, right?

Wrong again. The server responds with a status code of 302 (“found”) and redirects the request to http://www.cnn.com/politics/. So why tell people to go to the cnnpolitics.com domain? I suppose part of the reason is that they registered the domain name in order to keep anyone else from getting it, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that they chose to use it and redirect it to make things easier for the user. Apparently, it’s easier to communicate cnnpolitics dot com than cnn dot com slash politics, especially when it’s spoken rather than printed.

What can we take away from this? Apparently, it’s that slashes are problematic. Maybe that’s because a standard keyboard has two different kinds of slashes: the forward slash and the backslash. When a person says “slash,” they almost invariably mean the forward slash, but I suppose it could still cause some confusion. When I say “guitar,” do you think of an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, or what? Certainly, when the electric guitar was new to the world, “guitar” meant acoustic guitar, just like one used to be able to say “television” to mean a black and white television, then at some point one would specify “color television” for the new technology. Eventually, there would be a point at which you couldn’t just say “television” because you might have been referring to either color or black and white. Now, just about every television is color, so one can say “black and white television” and just “television” for color. And we’ll go through this again with digital, high definition, etc.

But with slashes, it seems that despite the fact that there’s a general understanding that “slash” means “forward slash,” it’s not understood widely enough, and some have decided to find ways around it. Hence, if you own enough domains, you don’t mind setting up redirects every time you publish a new document, and you don’t care about how hard your poor defenseless server has to work, you can just feed people domain names to direct them to your pages.

There’s another option out there, but it pretty much relies on people understanding what slashes are for and which ones are kosher on the web. Shell has been running spots on the eye of hell of late, promoting how hard they’re working to clean up the environment and find alternative, clean sources of energy. As if. Basically, it’s one of those “please don’t hate us, we need those enormous profits more than you know” campaigns.

At the end of the spot, they tell you to go to shell.com/us/realenergy for more information. That’s the URL you see on the screen, but the voiceover says, “shell dot com [pause] us [pause] realenergy.” Is that helpful? If you’re not looking at the screen when you hear this, will you know what to make of those pauses?

And what happens when you try to go to shell.com/us/realenergy?

HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
Server: Sun-ONE-Web-Server/6.1
Date: Mon, 07 Apr 2008 20:10:07 GMT
Content-length: 0
Content-type: text/html
Location: http://www.shell.com/us/realenergy

You get redirected to the URL with the www. From there…

HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
Server: Sun-ONE-Web-Server/6.1
Date: Mon, 07 Apr 2008 20:11:40 GMT
Content-length: 0
Content-type: text/html
Location: http://www.shell.com/us/realenergy/
Connection: close

You get the slash added at the end via a redirect. After that, you get a 200 response at the new URL, hit a bunch of JavaScript and then…

<meta http-equiv=”refresh” content=”1; URL=http://realenergy.shell.com/?lang=en&page=homeFlash”> </meta>

A meta refresh to a subdomain of shell.com, without the www, and with some personalization, based on a flash sniffer and most likely my IP address.

As it turns out, they could have told me to go to realenergy.shell.com (look mom, no slashes!), and I’d have ended up in the same place. But I suppose subdomains are even harder to communicate than any of that other stuff.

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Google Me This

I received a piece of mail a few days ago — old fashioned, analog mail, that is. It was a bright yellow postcard from a local company that provides a service to homeowners. I don’t want to give their name away, but it’s three words: an adjective expressing a quality of service, followed by a noun (the thing they work on), and a noun based on the action they perform. Let’s say it was Best Floor Refinishers, just to make things easier.

So… Best Floor Refinishers sent me (“RESIDENT”) a postcard offering a $30 “off-season” discount rate. (Yes, I know floor refinishers don’t have an off season. The name is just an example. Pay attention.) The postcard also displayed the logo of some apparently authoritative national agency, implying that they have every right to use that “Best” (or something like that) in their company name. There was a toll-free telephone number, along with three other numbers for specific towns in the area: Cambridge, Needham, and Medford (say it with me: “Meffa”).

The postcard also contained a message addressed to “Dear Past Customer or Current Resident,” about the importance of refinishing my floors (or whatever) for safety’s sake. “BE SAFE, CALL TODAY!!” Moreover, I needn’t worry, because my “satisfaction is GUARANTEED !!!!!!”

Fascinating as all that may be, the thing that really caught my attention was right under the company’s name and logo: It was the word “Google” in a font very similar to Google’s own logo, but in all black letters, followed by a colon and the first two words of their company name, mashed together into one word and intercapped. Sort of like this:

Google:
BestFloor

OK, fine. I ran the search, and here’s what I got:

Google result for search on BestFloor: Did you mean Best Floor?

Well, no Google. I meant “BestFloor,” because that’s what the postcard said to search for.

At any rate, the top result for both [Best Floor] and [BestFloor] was the same site: bestfloor.com, which happens to be the site of Best Floor Refinishers. Pretty impressive, eh?

No! It’s not impressive at all. What are they trying to tell me — are they bragging that they rank #1 for the first two words of their company name? That they rule the SERP for their domain name? Wowzers.

I think they just wanted to let me know where to find their site, but rather than just telling me the URL, they tell me to search for the domain.

I’ve known plenty of people who navigated around the web this way. If they wanted to go to Qwerty’s Qoncepts and they knew the URL, they’d go to Google or Yahoo and search for qwertysqoncepts.com. This is what we in the search marketing business refer to with the technical term “stupid.”

It’s doubly stupid for a company to promote itself by telling people to search for its domain name, especially without the TLD. What would happen if their competitors over at bestfloor.net got to work on improving their site and took the top spot for [bestfloor]? Our postcard pals would be sending their potential customers straight to the other guys.

A word to the wise: if you want your print material to let people know where they can find your website, give them the damned URL. A one-step hunt for it is one step too many. At best it’s stupid. At worst, it’s an advert for the competition.

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