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Links: Misspelling for Profit and Pleasure

Simon Pitt | Internet | Sunday 17th January 2010

Recently, a new fad has developed for registering URIs that are misspelling of more famous sites. The plan here is to catch users with poor typing skills.

Cameroon with their country code .cm has really done well out of this as businesses realised that people in their haste might misspell "com". Perhaps the most annoying of the similar URIs is twitter.co.uk (as opposed to twitter.com) which, apparently, gets someone visiting it by mistake every 24 seconds

Often this sort of thing is called cyber-squatting, but not in the case of twitter.co.uk, since Steve Crawford bought the name before Twitter.com existed. He planned to use it to develop his software: Talking Wordprocessor, Internet, Typing Tutor, Email Resource. Inexplicably, this never caught on. It's a mark of the lack of forethought on the part of Twitter (a service that has become much more popular than its designers ever intended, dreamed or planned for), that they didn't check their brand name before launching. Crawford has taken the noble route and is offering advertising on his site in exchange for a donation to charity, rather than pretending to be Twitter to steal people's login details.

Proper "cybersquatting" is buying domain names of companies or products that belong to someone else. In the early days of the Internet, some people had the bright idea of buying up domain names and selling them back to the owners of those companies at vastly inflated prices. You think I have problems with the other gaggle of Simon Pitts getting to domain names first but it's worse if you're Tesco. Cybersquatting is now illegal in American under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. Nevertheless, many people still attempt to register similar spelt domain names to catch people out. For example, the official Whitehouse website (www.whitehouse.gov) is parodied at www.whitehouse.org and both http://goolgle.com and http://www.goggle.com lead to websites that capitalise on their similarity to Google.

Of course, even when no one has stolen the name of your company, it's not necessarily an easy ride. Californian-based therapist search engine Therapist Finder found this out the hard way when they registered www.therapistfinder.com. They're now very careful to change the colour of "finder" in all their trademarks. Experts-Exchange quickly changed their domain to www.experts-exchange.com after wasting a registration fee on: www.expertsexchange.com

As you may have realised by now, the dots between the words in the domain name indicate a different section of the site. http://www.image.dissectors.com/, for example, is a completely different page, that we don't own and has nothing to do with us, despite the similarity. This new page is called a subdomain. Technically this is just a folder inside the main folder with special status. This is something to watch, especially with banking. Take this example:

http://www.barclays.loginsecure.co.uk

This is nothing to do with Barclays. This site belongs to whoever owns www.loginsecure.co.uk (at the time of writing this, no one owned this address). All they have done is create a subdomain called Barclays. By sticking this at the front, these scammers are taking advantage of the fact that most people don't understand how domain names work. The bit at the front doesn't mean anything; it's the bit just before the top level domain that refers to the owner of the site.

In theory, you could have 127 subdomains, as long as each label (the bit between each dot) contains fewer than 63 characters.

Unfortunately, the whole domain as well has to contain fewer than 255 characters. This is rarely, if ever a problem, as few companies want a 255 character web address. The maximum length of the whole URI is a limitation in the browser not the internet. Internet Explorer pegs out at a measly 2083 characters whereas Firefox doesn't bother to display anything beyond 65,536 characters (although you can still type more letters in; you just can't see them).

Long URIs are a bit of a problem. They're unwieldy, take ages to write down, fill up your screen and people can get them wrong. Consequently, services have started cropping up which replace your long URI with a shorter one. Perhaps the most famous is the Libyan-registered http://bit.ly.

The first of these services was the surprisingly-long makeashorterlink.com which came into existance in 2001. Later it was bought by tinyurl.com, which once held the crown as most famous URI shortener. Initially Twitter used to automatically shorten long links using TinyURL, but in 2009 they swapped to using bit.ly, giving them, perhaps temporarily, the crown of standard URI shortener. Even Google has tried to get a piece of the URI-shrinking action, releasing their own URL Shortner: http://goo.gl/.

The problem with services like bit.ly and tinyURL.com is that they don't really have a sustainable business model. This was seen recently with tr.im which went out of business, breaking all the links that had been set up. The Internet Archive started a project, "301 Works", with a plan to mop up all the links that break if any of these companies go bankrupt.

URL shorteners have come into criticism, partly because you can't see what you're linking to. If I send you a link to:

http://bit.ly/6kLHC6

You don't know what this link is going to be. It could be a lovely picture of a cat playing with a ball, a large picture of someone's genitalia or a virus that could delete all the files on your computer and steal all of your money. You just don't know until you click it.

For those of you obsessed with scalability, it's worth pointing out that while these services can provide a lot of shortened links, the number isn't infinite. Tinyurl, with it's six figures after the slash can provide just over 2 billion pages whereas bit.ly (by using a combination of upper and lower cases) can provide almost 57 billion. Big numbers, but when you look at how many webpages there are, there will come a day, and perhaps not that far away, when these will have all been used up.

While URL shorteners offer you a shortened name to a long URI, many sites allow you to register your own subdomain. Blogging sites, such as blogspot.com offer yournamehere.blogspot.com and sites like www.co.nr and www.co.tk (which we looked at last time) offer cheap (or free) ways to make it look a bit like you've got a "proper" website. These sort of subdomains are often known as "vanity domains", since they are usually offered by large companies to individuals to use as personal pages about nothing more than their own boring lives and opinions.

Of course, many people don't like subdomains. Subdomains imply some level of dependence; i.e. postsecret.blogspot.com shows that the site is a blogspot blog, and someone has just registered their own subdomain. It doesn't look as professional as, say, postsecret.com (which does, in fact redirect to the same place).

People like to register their own domain name, and sometimes, even buy domain names from other people because they're so good. The most famous (and most expensive) case of this was business.com which was bought for $7.5 million in December 1999 (when the dot com bubble was still growing). These days, going to business.com you'd hardly believe it was the most expensive domain name ever sold. Someone is probably kicking himself now.

The domain name business.com has always made record prices. In 1997, it sold for $150,000 which at that point was a record. As always, someone was left holding the potato at the end. In 2007, R.H. Donnelley (a company that publishes telephone directories) bought business.com (the company, not just the domain name) for $345 million. Two years later, they filed for bankruptcy.

To be continued. Next time we will have a look what comes after the slash, talk about variables and question marks and reveal a very worrying fact.

SP



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