SiteFinder leaves Web users at a loss

Posted on October 6, 2003

Imagine going to the library to find a specific piece of literature. The problem is, you remember the words "corn" and "facade" are in the title, but you can't remember the author or any other information. Was it "The Children of the Corn Facade"? Or maybe "The Facade of Corn Flakes"?

But instead of a normal search through the card catalog, using the Dewey Decimal system, you are subjected to a chain bookstore trying to sell you books with some of the same words in the title. You're pretty positive the book is not titled, "Fads, Facades, Crayons and Corn," but if you want, you can purchase this bestseller at the store near you. I'm guessing you wouldn't be too happy because not only was the correct title not located, now you are inundated with advertisements for things you never wanted in the first place.

Well maybe this isn't the greatest analogy, but it addresses the problems created recently by VeriSign's SiteFinder. During the last month, if you accidentally typed in the wrong Web site address, you may have noticed a different error than before. Instead of receiving the normal 404 File not Found, an unknown URL took visitors to Site Finder, which allowed searching, gave a couple domain names that do exist and contained a section with popular categories. As of Oct. 3, VeriSign voluntarily suspended Site Finder until a determination could be made as to whether or not this was legal in the first place.

Although it might seem generous for VeriSign to provide all these tools even if you type in a name wrong, the company has stepped over the boundary this time.With the help of Paul Vixie, a major contributor to Internet protocols and software, I can explain why this is really, really bad (read the entire Vixie interview here). VeriSign is the gatekeeper of sorts for domain names. Unlike Rick Moranis in "Ghostbusters II," the gatekeeper isn't in charge of ghosts but instead, controls the main database of .com and .net domain names. In September, the company added a wild card to the database, meaning it represents all names not listed in the database. I know, when I first saw wild card, I thought I had a full house too.

When Web users hit the wild card, which would happen if they enter an address that doesn't exist, they are forwarded to Site Finder. And while Site Finder might seem a little better than a "Page Not Found" error, the site is shows paid links and advertisements. Talk about shutting down a free market. VeriSign has successfully managed to gain a huge advantage to any other search engine only because the company is in charge of it. Not even Moranis would pull a stunt like this.

This change also directly effects domain registrars. If users are looking for an available domain name, and they type the address in their browser just to see if it exists, they are automatically taken to a VeriSign site, and of course, VeriSign is a registrar. A number of sites have sued the company in hopes of getting this stopped immediately, which may have been reason enough for VeriSign to halt the service momentarily.

The wild card also causes email and security problems. I think it may have even caused my plants to freeze and my radio to stop working. Actually, ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has scheduled a fact-gathering meeting for Oct. 7 in Washington, D.C. There's no guarantee that anything will be solved at this meeting, mainly because it still needs to be decided who should be in charge of handling the database of domain names in the first place.

I guess it could be worse. VeriSign could be misdirecting every Web surfer to its site. Even still, it would be nice to have an impartial, non-profit organization to control companies who try to take advantage of the power they have. I would like to nominate Rick Moranis as president and all the children of the corn as board members.