Facebook slash – is this the end for web addresses?

By Matt Cornock

In this blog post I discuss the rise of third-party branded URLs and the possible future of web addresses leading towards registration-plate domain names. Are branded URLs becoming redundant?

Facebook dot com slash…

With a number of big brands now using Facebook (facebook.com/brandname) instead of their own web addresses (brandname.com), the question has to be asked: Which brand is more important to the intended audience?

Strangely, the assumption that everyone in the big brand’s target audience uses Facebook is of course wildly misplaced. Indeed in order to participate in some big brand Facebook pages you are required to add that page’s app to your Facebook profile (and naturally share as much data about yourself as the app demands). Again, this puts up a barrier to the potential audience. See the facebook.com/pepsimax competition as an example (which by the way I entered numerous times and still have not had a yay or nay response – at least their last competition via their own website sent a ‘you did not win’ email). Odd that the competition only featured on standard Pepsi bottles rather than PepsiMax too.

Power of a brand, diffused?

Big, international brands are now piggy-backing on the dominance of Facebook in the social networking market. This does cause some confusion over who ‘owns’ the brand, especially when trying to tap into new markets. On the one hand, these brands are using the facebook.com domain as an implied rubber stamp tapping into a vibrant community, on the other, they are muddying their own identity having to conform to a layout and interaction imposed by an internet giant.

I wonder if we would be reacting the same if Microsoft tried this? Would brands be willing to promote such addresses as microsoft.com/apple, or even google.com/yahoo? Facebook, even with its questionable policies on privacy and identity protection (let’s not go into the latest fiasco about auto-photo tagging), still appears as a trusted brand by web users – either that or they have gone past the point of caring, or feel they’re missing out if they don’t participate on Facebook.

Marketing benefit

So, why are big brands using Facebook pages instead of their own, admittedly shorter, web addresses? If Facebook users are looking for a brand, Facebook’s search isn’t too bad at bringing that brand up. Similarly, most people will Google search instead of remembering a brand’s unique web address. As mentioned earlier, user metrics can be even more finely detailed on Facebook (age, sex, location, education, personal interests and what colour top they’re wearing in their profile pic), and the users who add a brand’s app are the ones who want to be actively engaged with that brand.

Whilst the dominant age group on Facebook is the 18-25 year old market, we cannot forget the 25-30 year age group who have ‘grown up’ with Facebook, the 30-40 age group who are working professionals and the 40+ group which represents parents, grandparents and other family using Facebook as the main way to keep tabs on each other. These in-depth audience analyses can help the big brand marketers.

Additionally, Facebook offers a way for these big brands to become even more like daily, household names. Photobox, as one example, run a number of quick-turnaround competitions and offer updates through ‘Liking’ their page. This constant reminder of the brand and valuable, engaging content will do more for them on Facebook for their target audience (web-savvy, digital media types) than a wadge of print or terrestrial broadcast advertising. It’s the equivalent of someone leaving a post-it note on your front door every day – more noticeable and in your face than an envelope shoved through your letterbox marked ‘To the householder’.

Registration plate domain names

What does this mean for the humble web address though? Google search still uses web addresses as a key ranking indicator, both in terms of the actual words and the age of the domain name, which at least gives some longevity to having meaningful web addresses. However, we’ve seen a whole host of Web 2.0 random names come and go/stay (zoosk, flickr, funkypigeon, bebo, to name a few) all of which tend to bear no relation to the actual purpose or content of the site. These catchy names are remembered which is useful when converting print advertising to online visits, but with the dominance of third-party sites like Facebook and efficient searching like Google and Bing/Yahoo, will recognisable web addresses become obsolete?

I’m starting to think now that we may see in the not to distant future a move towards registration-plate domain names. By this I mean a random jumble of letters and numbers, purely to give space to launch a myriad of other things. If we take the more extreme view that email itself will become less important as communications take place more heavily embedded on mobile devices and on the in-built messaging systems of social networking sites, then the @domain.name part of email addresses also becomes obsolete and can change to a jumble of characters. When was the last time you manually entered an email instead of clicking the link, replying, copy’n’pasting or using your email client/mobile phone address book?

We are infact already seeing such a move with weblink sharing sites such as bit.ly and t.co. Jumbled up letters provide short and quick-to-share trackable links, overcoming the age old problems of memory, unnecessary character usage, and links broken over lines in an email. These abstracted links are meaningless without the surrounding context and, as the internet is supposed to be about hyperlinks within a context, maybe this will make the web a better place – i.e. encouraging good content rather than just a stream of unidentifiable web addresses.

One thing is clear though, the www. part of many web addresses is now seen as pretty much redundant. When we see two words separated by a dot, the main thought is ‘web address’ rather than poor use of punctuation and the original meaning of www. is now irrelevant, no longer needed as an identifying feature of web site addresses for the lay user.

Domain prospecting

When domain name purchasing became cheap, domain prospecting really hit home. Hundreds of thousands of common words were snapped up by prospectors who (still) sit waiting for some big player to come along and pay them handsomely over the odds for ownership of such sites as http://www.theinternet.com/ . You’ll spot these quite easily, where you don’t get a random error message, you might get links to what appear to be useful sites and then you spot, woven in, the links to dating, debt-management and naughty places. With the rise of third-party branding like ‘facebook dot com slash’, perhaps these domain prospectors have had their time.

Facebook, for example, requires at least 25 ‘likes’ before a page-based web address (let’s call them ‘slash’ names) is given, therefore making it hard for individual prospectors to jump on the bandwagon without breaching Facebook terms and raising a few red flags. Twitter has a red flag system where if a user follows a few thousand but has very few follows back that user is investigated for spamming. In a way then, these social networking sites are actually actively stopping internet time-wasters – so maybe this is a good thing? Perhaps this is just vetting under the terms and conditions of a multi-billion dollar, international organisation, but it would be difficult to argue that Facebook or Twitter are preventing free speech.

Conclusion

To conclude then, a strange and twisted view of the internet’s future is that there will be just a handful of very big, very powerful domain names from which all other internet presences follow on from. Email addresses will become as obscure as telephone numbers and domain names will end up looking like car registration plates. Technology, in whatever form it may be, will still allow us to find what we need quickly, still allow us to contact the people we want to contact, but won’t depend on us mere humans a) knowing a specific address or b) remembering it.

Note: You’ll have noticed I use ‘web addresses’ rather than URL – this is because my guess is that URL is still only ‘known’ to tech people and the average web user probably cares less for our contrived acronyms such as URL, www, ftp, http, etc. I have also cared not for the distinction of domain name and web address, which we know are different but who cares?

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