Verisign, owners of what was once Network Solutions, have introduced a new wrinkle to the web. By adding 'wildcards' to their domain name settings, any domain name not found will be redirected to their 'helpful search portal.' This is because, in reality, an address was found: Verisign's wildcards match anything not found elsewhere. If the domain is found, but not the page, that domain's 'not found' page will be displayed. I'll leave it to others to discuss the technical details if they choose to.

Why is this a bad idea? Not because it annoys me personally. If that were a valid argument it would deny fans of certain television sitcoms and certain styles of music their rightful enjoyment. Verisign had a Bad Idea from a business perspective, and from a web perspective. It's a bad business model, it violates the spirit of the web, and it confuses and potentially alienates customers.

A Bad Business Model

Network Solutions was once a government-sanctioned monopoly. Not the open-to-debate type of monopoly Microsoft is accused of being, but a true monopoly. As the only vendor for domain name registration, they could essentially make their own rules.

Those days are gone. Now, domain name registrars can be found on any virtual street corner. Verisign, as the new NetSol, is trying to recover from that loss of monopoly. Let's briefly compare these two alleged monopolies, Microsoft and Verisign/Netsol. Microsoft develops (or purchases) tools that are useful to me, and which I usually have a hard time finding elsewhere for a fair price and the same quality. (I realize that's a subjective statement, so if you disagree, feel free to write your own article and make your own subjective statements to the contrary.) Microsoft has done a world-class job of marketing, making their tools the de facto standards of the software world, as far as the average end-user is concerned.

Verisign provides no services which can't be found elsewhere, at a better value for the same or superior quality. Their marketing has done nothing compelling to cause me to desire their services. Although they have lowered prices on extended domain name registration, their first-year price is exactly what it was during the days of their monopoly. This makes bad business sense when equal or better registration services are commonly available for less than one-third the cost. Higher prices, in a good business model, must be offset by some compelling reason for the customer to pay them. Verisign has not provided that reason.

It Violates the Spirit of the Web

Openness. Sharing. Freedom. Those are things we've come to associate with the world wide web. Want to chat with someone in another country, asynchronously? Want to compare prices across, not just time zones, but international borders? Want to learn virtually anything? It's all possible because the people who make the web work want it to work. While commercial interests drive much web development, much is still driven by altruism.

Verisign has created a situation where I, the user, have no choice. I cannot circumvent their device. I can't choose to turn it off without changing the way a familiar tool functions. They're like the loud voice at the next table, interrupting your conversation every time they hear something they want to comment on. Perhaps it's not malice; perhaps it's just rudeness. Why would a commercial entity like Verisign want to drive potentially millions of visitors to their website?

It's Confusing

On the telephone, in most countries, if you misdial, or dial a number that doesn't exist, you hear a recording which tells you succinctly "That number doesn't exist. Please check it, and try again." That short and useful response is the conceptual basis for the well-known '404' 'page-not-found' error we've all seen often enough.

Now, imagine a different scene: one day, you dial an old friend's number, not sure whether they still live there. Instead of the familiar recording, someone answers—but it's not your friend, it's a total stranger. "Hello? Oh, they don't have this number. No, I don't know if they moved, or if you dialed wrong. Hmmm . . . let me see if I can help you. Would you like to try calling someone with a similar name? How about just calling similar phone numbers and see if they answer? No? Okay."

You try again, wondering if you misdialed. The same voice answers, with the same message. They learned nothing from your previous experience. They're not more helpful the second, third, or twelfth time. No benefit has been added by hijacking the phone conversation you were trying to make. Instead, you are confused and frustrated.

Changing something familiar without an overwhelming reason is a bad customer service model.

What Can You Do?

If you don't want to see Verisign's 'helpful' message when the web address you're looking for isn't found, there's a simple (albeit circuitous) method. If you're using a Windows based PC, there is a file called 'hosts' (that's all; no file extension) in your system folders. Making an entry which gives your local machine's address as the address of Verisign's helpful tool will essentially circumvent it. However, the 'not found' page you see will display information about the Verisign page, not the page you were really seeking. (It is left to the reader to find and implement whatever circumvention processes they might want.)

Another thing you can do is speak out. If you're a Verisign customer, tell your contacts at Verisign what you think. If you're not a customer, but others consult you for web expertise which might in the past have caused you to recommend Verisign, let them know if you won't consider them in the future. This isn't about personal preferences as much as it is about conducting business in a professional manner. Stepping on someone's toes is not how to win friends and influence people.