A Print Promotion Solution to Cryptic URLs

By: Steve Outing

Recently in this column, I've written about the importance of promoting online content in print. Specifically, news publishers are well advised when running a print reference or promotion to point readers to specific online content by running a Web address (URL) for specific content -- rather than running a generic home page URL and expecting Web visitors to search for the item.

The trouble, of course, is that a specific piece of content -- say a story about boxer Mike Tyson or an online discussion forum about him -- will likely have a long and cumbersome URL. Something like http://www.newspaper.com/sports/tyson1.html is pretty awkward when a print reader has to type it from scratch after seeing it in print. It would be so much better if you could just tell print readers to visit your Web site and type in "Tyson" or "Tyson discussion."

This idea is hardly new. Proprietary services like American Online and Prodigy have long had "Keyword" and "Jump" codes -- words that users typed in to bring up a specific piece of content on the services. Oddly, no one has come up with a similar system for the World Wide Web until just recently, with the introduction of a service called Netword.

Arlington, Virginia-based Netword has developed a system that allows individuals, businesses, advertisers and publishers to link simple words or phrases to pieces of content on the World Wide Web. Anyone can register a Netword word or phrase and assign or link it to a URL anywhere on the Web. Users can type in the phrase in a Netword dialog box (on a site that supports Networds) or go to the Netword Web site and type it in.

Media applications

This is a wonderful application for print publishers or news broadcasters operating on the Web. Rather than running a print promotion that tells your newspaper's readers to find the online stocks briefing at http://www.newspaper.com/cgi-bin/stocks, instruct them to visit your Web site and type in "noon stocks" or "closing stocks."

This pre-supposes that you have drilled into readers' minds the URL for your main Web site home page. My recommendation for that is to include it repeatedly throughout the print product (or flashed on-screen frequently for news broadcasters). Ideally, your main URL will be in every page header, so the process of finding specific online content is now very simple.

Netword director of marketing Shep Bostin explains that for publishers, signing up to use Netword is free, while charges accrue for using assigned Networds and for hits on the Networds beyond a specified traffic load. A typical publisher using the system would download some Netword HTML code and place it on its Web page(s). This generates a Netword text field where Web users can type in words or phrases. This request polls the database on the central Netword server, and the URL on the publisher's site is returned to the end-user.

For businesses, there are two levels of service: 1) a basic account that let's you define up to 5 Networds at a cost of $5 per month, and 2) an "unlimited account" for larger businesses that includes 10 Networds plus software to create additional Networds as needed, for $100 per month. For high numbers of Networds, the company negotiates special rates. One of Netword's first customers, Seagate Technologies, purchased 1,000 Networds. (Each of Seagate's hard disk and tape drive products has a Netword, so customers need only know the name of the product to quickly find information about it on Seagate's Web site.)

There is also a per-hit service charge for Netword usage by the public; there is no charge for up to 50,000 hits per month, then it costs 1 cent per hit beyond that. Bostin says that for customers expecting huge traffic levels on their Networds, the company will negotiate discounted per-hit pricing.

Among the interesting features of Netword is that a phrase can contain punctuation, spaces, and foreign characters. Also, the Web pages that Networds point to can be changed often (without charge). Networds can point not only to Web pages, but also files to download, video clips, Java applets, e-mail addresses, etc.

Central network model

The Netword system currently is centralized, so publishers can't license the technology to run on their in-house servers. But Bostin says the company hopes to offer that at some future date.

For now, Networds cannot be duplicated, so only one person would be able to register "Tyson fight," for example. However, Bostin says that a site can be set up so that a publisher's Web site visitor types in "Tyson fight" but the publisher's server sends to the Netword server the request "Hearst/Tyson fight." In this way, a publisher wanting the same Netword as another publisher can be accommodated.

The company is just getting started, but Bostin says the Netword concept has been well received by advertising agencies, especially, since they want to use it to point to online content in print and broadcast ads. Bostin has been speaking to numerous publishers, but they are being more cautious in committing to the concept, he says.

I think this concept is a winner. It solves a thorny problem for publishers needing to promote specific Web site content without having to publish complex-looking URLs in print. It still amazes me that no one has done this on the Web until now; the keyword alias concept has been a staple of the proprietary online services for years, after all.

I am not aware of any other companies plying this concept, and Bostin says his company believes it is alone for now.

The system is not perfect. Ideally, Netword-like functionality would be built into the Web browser. Today, Netword offers a free downloadable client helper application that works with Netscape's and Microsoft's Web browsers, enabling a user to simply type in a Netword to pull up a page. There's no need to go to any Web site first. Imagine this functionality being built into the browser. A user, prompted by a newspaper ad, would type into his browser "USA Today Tyson Coverage" and up would come USA Today's latest Tyson story. Are you listening, Microsoft and Netscape?

Contact: Shep Bostin, shep@netword.com


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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