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[Netscape's Smart Browser]
Keywords Concept Gets Mixed Reviews

By Malcolm Maclachlan (07/25/98; 11:44 a.m. ET)

Netscape is drawing fire for the use of Internet keywords in the latest iteration of its browser, Communicator 4.5.

Internet keywords bring Web users to a site without requiring them to type in a URL. In the case of Communicator 4.5, users who type in a term such as "cars" will go to directly to a site designated by Netscape, rather than to http://www.cars.com as before.

Although the concept of Internet keywords is used by a number of companies, Internet Keywords is a subset of Netscape's Smart Browsing feature.

The Smart Browsing feature, according to critics such as industry analyst Dave Winer, are largely a smart way to push users to content on Netscape's Netcenter website. Netscape said it hopes to make Netcenter a leading portal site, providing centralized content and services to Internet users.

Now another company in the Internet keywords space,
Centraal, is being sued by a competitor named NetWord, which was granted a patent on the concept last month.

Such conflicts could be the early rounds over who controls the keywords concept. Keywords not only make the Web easier for novices to use, but also gives power to traffic users over certain sites.

This is the precise reason a browser and portal company like Netscape should not control the concept, according to Keith Teare, CEO of Centraal. Teare said he welcomes the browser companies' interest in keywords because he believes Internet users will take to using them.

But these same users, he said, will eventually decide a non-browser, non-content third party should control the system. This would be the impetus behind Centraal's RealNames database to become an intrinsic part of the Web experience.

On Wednesday, however, a company called Netword announced it had filed suit against Centraal. It had received a U.S. patent on its Netword System June 16.

This system, launched last year, requires users to download a 200-kilobit-per-second plug-in. This plug-in interacts with the browser, pointing users who type in certain keywords to Netword's database of registered sites. The suit charges that Centraal copied the idea months after Netword had begun its service. Centraal is fighting the suit.

Rob Cummings, founder of Keyword.com, said he thinks the lawsuit sounds dubious. After all, he said, the idea of keeping a database and redirecting traffic is hardly new.

"I see a conflict of interest," Cummings said. "It's almost as if the phone company had its own interests and redirected your phone calls."

Instead, the Internet will likely support a number of keyword-type sites, he said, just as it now supports several search engines. Cummings launched his service in May last year. Visitors to his site can enter a keyword in a search box.

Unlike many of other systems, Keyword.com does not charge to register a site. It also doesn't accept generic registrations such as "cars" or "computers." Generic searches, Cummings said, are best left to the existing search engines, which would bring up hundreds of hits on such topics.

Keyword.com, he said, works for someone who is seeking information on "Mazda." Companies that register an acceptable keyword get its use for free, provided they are not sexually oriented and agree to post a small Keyword.com banner on their site. The site has 3000 listings -- a number that is growing by 30 a day.


Ultimately, the big losers in this competition will probably be the site owners who managed to get their hands on various generic .com domains. But none of these competitors are apologizing.

"The owners of cars.com just happened to be lucky for a time," said Centraal's Teare. "Prominence should be something you have to earn, rather than something that falls in your lap."

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