Better Business by Robb Hicken: Domain-name fudging could bring repercussions

ROBB HICKEN, chief storyteller for the Better Business Bureau serving the Snake River RegionSeptember 17, 2013 

Robb Hicken

Smartphones take their own initiative to correct spelling errors. When typing in a word, they automatically suggest words with slightly different spellings that, nonetheless, are incorrectly spelled.

When I type in the word gogle.com, gooogle.com, ggoogle.com or any other variation of fat-fingered typos, I get redirected to www.google.com. However, when I type in googling.com, I get a completely different website.

Uniform resource locator (URL) experts say that such misspellings occur all the time. In fact, Konya Weber, marketing professor at Northwest Nazarene University, says it is common for companies to buy up all domains that have versions of their name that are misspelled, elongated or shortened URLs.

"This helps prevent them from being squatted on or stolen," she says.

Domain squatting is used to escalate the domain's price without investing any effort to improve it.

"They are extorting money from you to buy it from them," she says. "It all boils down to motive. "

Laws are not being broken. Anyone can purchase a domain name and maintain it with a host for as long as needed.

But the ethics behind the purchase come into question. Buying a domain as an investment is different than buying a domain and infringing on someone's brand.

URL redirection or forwarding makes a Web page viewable under more than one address. When a Web browser attempts to open a URL that has been redirected, a page with a different URL is opened. It basically fools search engines.

If I was looking for robbhicken.com, and I typed in robbhickens.com, the single letter would represent a valid and legal URL. Changing a letter makes a website domain name different and therefore legitimate.

The ethical dilemma comes when I make the changes and redirect intended business inquiries to a page that's not mine.

For example, daledixon.com is a valid site. If I change it and make dalenixon.com redirect to my site, I've hijacked possible clients from my competitor. This is lost revenue and infringement on a brand, affecting social media analytics and page ranking.

"It comes to what is the intent," Weber says. "If you want that same domain name and you have a legitimate business reason, then it's OK. But if it's to a redirect or to steal business or hurt the brand or trademark name, there's legal boundaries crossed."

She says once you step over that line, it's an unethical way to make money.

"Companies work hard to build their brands, and potential customers look for that brand because of what it's associated with," she says. "So, when one business pushes customers off a legitimate site with a redirect, there may be some legal issues as well."

BBB encourages the following:

• Be transparent - Social media and blogs add new customers but also reinforce your website name and brand. Avoid misspellings.

• Be honest - Buy websites with brand impact. Related links can reinforce your web address and avoid redirects from sound-alike sites. Impose your own redirects from fractured URL spellings.

• Be legal - If copyright or trademarks apply, you can protect graphics, images and words on your site.

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rhicken@boise.bbb.org, 947-2115

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