iMedia Connection

4 technologies that are killing the URL

Jonathan Richman

Recently, I was involved in a few presentations and had a conversation with a colleague that got me thinking about the future of the URL (i.e., uniform resource locator -- in other words, a web address). All of my ponderings led me to one conclusion: What we have come to recognize as the primary means of getting to a website -- http://www.YourBrandHere.com -- is used less now than last year and isn't going to be used much in the future. The significance of this revelation led me to consider the methods with which we promote our web properties -- and whether we as digital marketers are ready for this shifting reality.

First, what am I talking about? In short, the URL is the way that most people think others find their pages online. It's what we see in ads, it's what we put on our business cards, and it's what we promote right down to the "www." However, more often than not, your customers may not be using your URL to find you. Yes, that URL that you've spent so much time and money promoting -- or that you spent a fortune to secure -- might not be that important.

There are several different technologies, all currently converging, that are contributing to the growing obsolescence of URLs. Here's a look at the most important ones, as well as the implications for marketers.

Search engines

Eighty percent of all online sessions begin with search. Google alone has a 63.7 percent share of all searches. Some quick math tells me that this means that just over half of the time someone starts an online session, they open to Google and begin to search. Bottom line: Most of the time people go online, they start with a search -- and don't type in your URL.

Implications
Instead of typing in your URL and ending up on your site, people are using search engines to find what they are looking for. The question is: Will they find you? You might not like the answer.

It turns out that the top three listings on a search engine results page account for approximately 63 percent of all clicks. That is, about two-thirds of the time, people look no further than the first three listings before clicking. So, clearly that's the place to be.

Furthermore, you've got to be in the top two in order to really be seen. The No. 3 result gets only an 8.44 percent click-through rate compared to a 42.3 percent click-through rate for the No. 1 listing. After No. 3, the numbers drop even more dramatically. Result No. 11, the first result on page two of your search results, has a click-through rate of 0.66 percent. The click-through then drops as follows:

I think you get the point. If you're off the first page, you pretty much don't exist.

When it comes to key search terms, many marketers are failing to secure a top position. With people using search engines first when they go online, a solid and thorough search marketing strategy (including paid and organic) is proving even more important for today's marketers than securing that coveted URL.

Browsers

The latest versions of web browsers are making it even simpler to circumvent URLs. Google's Chrome moved this along rapidly by creating a single "Omnibox" that allows you to either type in a URL or simply a search term. You don't need to go to Google.com to search -- just type your search term right where you would normally type the address. You are then taken to Google's search results. Similar functionality exists in Firefox and Internet Explorer, which actually may jump you directly to the most relevant search result instead of first directing you to Google.com. Regardless, no URL is required.

Implications
What's true for search engines is true for browsers here as well. The fact that browsers enable consumers to tap into search engine results is just one more reason to make sure that your search strategy is sound.

In certain cases, the browser may skip the Google search results page and drop you right on the page it feels is most appropriate (i.e., the first search result). It's basically the equivalent of the "I'm feeling lucky" button on Google. In this regard, marketers may want to pinpoint a term that users can type into their browser address bars that will take them directly to the brand's page without stopping at a search result page. Once you pinpoint such a term, you can tell people to simply type that phrase into their browsers instead of only providing your web address. We've seen this tactic used in the past, when many companies gave out a URL as well as an AOL keyword in their advertising. However, it can be difficult to find these terms, and different browser versions make this strategy a bit unreliable. However, it's worth starting to do the work now to own key terms so that when browser re-directs become more consistent and widely used, you will be ready.

Twitter and URL shortening

Twitter's limitation of 140 characters makes it pretty hard to tweet a really long URL, especially for those that direct to pages buried deep within a site. As a result, a number of URL shortening services have popped up that can shrink your almost infinitely long URL down to a handful of characters. Twitter uses bit.ly for this, which let's you take a URL like this --  http://www.doseofdigital.com/healthcare-pharma-social-media-wiki/ -- and shrink it down to this: http://bit.ly/11dBiH.

While such URL shortening services make it easier for you to tweet links, they also eliminate your brand's URL, negating all the branding that you spent so much time and money promoting.

Implications
Many companies have already started using Twitter to send out tweets promoting their brands. If you want people tweeting about your products and still want to include some branding in your URLs, it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

Instead of sharing a giant URL with followers, create a short URL in cases where you'd like them to tweet your content. The shortened URLs don't have to be random assortments of letters and numbers. You can use the shortening services to create custom URLs.  So, instead of a long URL or a jumble like http://bit.ly/5Jdi, you can include your own characters after the "bit.ly/": http://bit.ly/DoDPharma. This still gives you a little control over your branding and yet acknowledges the reality that long URLs are dead.

QR codes and image recognition

Do you recognize the below image? If you live in the U.S., chances are that you don't. If you live in Japan, you probably do. It's a QR code. In the U.S., these are rarely used, though they are popping up here and there. In other countries, it's a different story. QR codes are used in a lot of different advertising situations.

You'll notice that there is no URL written anywhere on the image. What QR codes allow you to do is take your mobile phone, snap a photo of the code (called "tagging"), and instantly be sent to the right web address. No typing, no risk of an incorrectly entered URL -- just a camera phone and web access. Phones in the U.S. typically don't come installed with the necessary software to read these codes, but you can install it if you'd like, or download an app if you've got an iPhone.

As you may have noticed, QR codes aren't necessarily pretty. New technology is being developed so that instead of snapping a picture of a QR code, people can just snap an image of your product or logo and immediately be sent to a web address. It would work the same as a QR code, but marketers wouldn't have to print terrible-looking code onto their packaging or ads.

Regardless, though, back to the point of this article: With QR codes and similar future technologies, your branded URL does not appear.

Implications
There are a lot of ways companies can leverage this technology, especially if they are not solely in the U.S., where QR code usage is pretty low. In Western Europe and Japan, these codes are ubiquitous, making these types of campaigns pretty commonplace.

Consider that the first major brand to widely use QR codes in the U.S. is probably going to garner some additional PR for its campaign simply because of the novelty of the technology. The brand could create further buzz by adding a little mystery to the campaign. Instead of explicitly saying what the product is, you might only include a message and the QR code. People might go out of their way to figure out what the campaign was all about. For example, in the grocery aisle with the pasta sauce, a brand like Tide laundry detergent might put up a shelf ad that simply says, "In case of a spill..." Along with the text, there could be a QR code that takes people to a specific page on the Tide site that discusses how well the product works on tomato sauce stains. (This may not be the most creative idea out there, but that's off the top of my head -- and you get the picture.)

In addition, you can include QR codes on print materials for those who might want to get additional information. You can only include so much information in a printed brochure, but with a QR code, someone could "tag" the code and instantly be transported to a demonstration video or product reviews. Print is suddenly interactive once again.

Conclusion
New technologies are changing even the most basic pieces of the online experience, including the URL. As people continue to use URLs differently -- or circumvent them altogether -- marketers have to ensure that they are keeping up and matching their marketing with how customers are using digital technologies. Amending your URL strategy is one simple but essential way to keep up with your customers.

Jonathan Richman is director of business development for Bridge Worldwide and blogs at Dose of Digital.

On Twitter? Follow Richman at @jonmrich. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.