Smart browser or dumb idea?

Netscape is facing a barrage of criticism over the Smart Browsing feature in its beta release of Communicator 4.5.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
4 min read
Is Smart Browsing too smart for its own good?

Netscape Communications is facing a barrage of criticism over implementation of the Smart Browsing feature in its beta release of Communicator 4.5. Intended to ease the process of typing in Web addresses to access sites, Smart Browsing has raised some sticky questions about the nature of Internet addresses and the role a browser should play in interpreting them.

Current generations of browsers from both Netscape and Microsoft have some variation on the same feature in which simple words typed into the URL bar at the top of the browser take users to a Web site. In the current-generation browsers, a word or name gets filled out by the opening "http://www" and closing ".com" at the end, or by other top-level domains depending on how the user sets the browser preferences.

Another current-generation browser feature turns up a search results page if the user prefaces the URL keyword with a question mark, or adds a space between two words.

But with the "Internet Keyword" feature of Smart Browsing, Netscape has taken the navigation tool to another level, querying numerous to come up with the "smartest" choice among various possible Web sites. In the case that touched off the current controversy, the word "scripting," which formerly led to the site located at "www.scripting.com," instead led to a Netscape page on the same subject.

This development led Scripting.com owner and Webmaster Dave Winer to protest. In the ensuing debate, some claimed that Netscape was taking unfair advantage of its market-leading position to pull traffic away from smaller sites.

Noting that its software is still in the beta stage, Netscape credited Winer with raising an important issue.

"He uncovered a bug for us," said Ken Hickman, program manager for Netcenter, Netscape's search and directory portal. The bug had to do with the order in which the URL request went through various databases; the database that resolved the request as a Netscape content page--as opposed to a Netscape directory page with links to various scripting sites--was too highly placed in that hierarchy, Hickman said.

However, while Communicator 4.5 will no longer send "scripting" requests to its own scripting page, nor will it send them to Winer's Scripting.com.

Ideally, Netscape plans to distinguish between generic words, such as "scripting" or "laundry," and send those to directory pages within Netcenter that will give users a list of options related to those generic categories. More specific names, such as "Tide" or "Microsoft," would lead directly to those companies' Web sites as they do with the current browsers, but with the advantage of being able to resolve URLs ending in other top-level domains such as ".org" and ".net."

But that solution rankles Winer, who said he has built his site around the generic term and that Netscape is unfairly siphoning off his traffic. Winer said that according to a poll he conducted among visitors to the site, about 10 percent type in the single word "scripting" to access it.

"We had the prescience to register the name in March of '95 with the intent of developing a site that specifically covered scripting," said Winer. "We have done a lot to develop an association between scripting and our site."

Winer's complaint highlights one of the stickiest issues surrounding Netscape's keyword feature, and that is the enormous value generic terms have gained on the Web because of the traffic they generate. In bypassing the specific sites with generic names in favor of a directory page, Netscape may be diluting the value of those domains.

But Netscape's Hickman questioned the value to the user of a system built on generically named Web addresses.

"Is it a good end-user experience if he types in 'laundry' and comes up with Tide?" Hickman asked rhetorically.

A number of companies specialize in systems that link company names and Web sites. A few companies in this space include Centraal, Network Solutions, and Intermind.

Netscape has had discussions with most if not all the companies in this space regarding potential collaborations, Hickman said.

While defending the keyword system in Communicator 4.5, Hickman stressed that the product is in a beta phase and that Netscape is taking this time to evaluate users' and content providers' responses.

"One of the things we're going to be looking at is whether it's just a few people that are going to be impacted, and the overall result is substantially better, or whether it's going to impact the site owners too much and not provide enough benefit to make it worthwhile," Hickman said. "I don't know the answer to that. It's part of the whole beta process."