The Google Toolbar now has a new way to skip directly to well-known Web sites: Type the name of the site you're looking for into the Internet Explorer (IE) address box and hit <Enter>. Want to find the official White House site? Go to the IE address box and enter "white house." You're immediately redirected to http://www.whitehouse.gov. (Remember: Guessing the domain for the White House home page is famously fraught with peril, as a porn site registered under a domain you might guess, whitehouse.com, years ago.) Want to find American Airlines? You're correctly redirected to http://www.aa.com (which you might have suspected would be the place to learn about a famous 12-step program).
Of course, not all names are unambiguous: Type "Saturn" into the address box and you're not redirected to a particular site, but instead given a traditional Google hit list. Between the GM car brand, the planet, the Sega video console, and various other uses of the word, Saturn is just too ambiguous for an algorithm to guess one site with confidence.
To take advantage of the new functionality, download the current version of the Google Toolbar. Just type what you're looking for into the IE Address box. If there's a match that's close enough to satisfy the robot that it's "the" right site, you're redirected there. Otherwise you see the hit list. To let you know that the Browse by Name function is taking over, the Toolbar displays a little icon near the address box. (Look closely because on a fast computer connection it doesn't show for very long.)
If this news gives you déjà vu, there's a good reason: You have heard all this before. In March 1998, a previous Silicon Valley startup, Centraal, announced its RealNames service. Founder, president, and CEO Keith Teare said at the time: "No more www.dots/slashes/more slashes." RealNames eventually entered into a partnership with Microsoft under which IE would deliver the right Web site for a brand name when people typed, say, "San Francisco Chronicle" into the IE address bar. Soon, the press believed RealNames would replace the DNS; The Times of London praised RealNames as the best way to find a company in December 1999.
One key difference between the RealNames model and the new Google approach: RealNames charged Web sites to register a RealName; Google is assigning names algorithmically.
For RealNames founder Teare, there isn't enough space between the Google functionality and the service he helped invent. On his personal blog, he wrote:
Google rips off RealNames idea!
The new Google toolbar clearly rips off the RealNames idea. I'm flattered. Shame they didn't give credit, after all I am one of the inventors of this patent.
It's not the first time Teare has complained bitterly about how a major Internet player behaved. After signing to add RealNames functionality to IE, Microsoft dissolved the partnership in June 2002. Teare tore into Microsoft with some very public denunciations.
Google isn't relying on a partnership with Redmond; it's exploiting the ability to take control over the handling of the address field. In fact, IE itself offers a feature to launch an MSN search for what people type into the address box. Google is betting that its popular toolbar will bring Browse by Name users to its service.
Ironically, Browse by Name actually costs Google some of the eyeballs the company covets. Andy Beale noted at SearchEngineLowdown: "So in a time when Google is looking to increase its revenue from AdWords, they introduce a service that seemingly bypasses the Google SERP [search engine results page] and all of its AdWords clients. Interesting…."
It could be that Browse by Name is more a tactical defensive move against Microsoft than an attempt to enhance Google ad impressions. By denying MSN some page views, Google lowers the mindshare of MSN and its newly enhanced search.
Another irony: For many users, the Google search box already replaced the DNS. Many people routinely type company names and the like into the Google search box. Yet a traditional Google search still results in the traditional results page.
I asked pioneering information architecture author and speaker Peter Morville what he thinks of Browse by Name. Morville said: "Handling words or phrases entered into the address field as Google queries is a good thing. Lots of users accidentally type queries into the address field already. I'd rather have Google than Microsoft handling this ‘opportunity.' Why not convert the address bar to a multipurpose command-line interface? Seems like an elegant solution."
But Morville cautioned: "However, the idea that Google can ‘know' the single page you're looking for based on a query leaves me skeptical and uneasy. Skeptical because I don't believe it will work very well and uneasy because it makes that #1 spot in search results absurdly important. Long-term, I bet they'll continue to allow Google queries via the address box but they'll drop the Browse by Name exact match ‘feature'."