Originally created 05/28/98

Entrepreneurs turn web typos into opportunities



Everybody makes mistaeks.

Especially when keyboarding in those pesky Internet addresses. Now some companies are turning your gaffes into gold.

Say you want to order a book from Amazon.com, the hyper-hyped online bookstore. You log onto the World Wide Web and type the bookstore's address into the box at the top of the screen. By accident you write "Amazom" (with an m on the end) instead of "Amazon."

Sure enough, a bookstore's page appears. At least it looks like a bookstore's page. Search the Book Stacks, it says. You can type in the name of the book or author you're looking for. The search, however, doesn't take you to Seattle-based Amazon.com, but to the site of Books.com, a rival outfit in Cleveland that's been on the Internet in one form or another since 1991.

Or say you're looking for the Web site of the Ford Motor Co., but you transpose a couple of letters, the "o" and the "r." You'll wind up at Murray's Auto Supply in Miami, a company that registered the faux pas. Comptroller Perry Weinthal, 32, said the rerouting was intentional.

How insidious! How ingenious! All around the Web, sites are springing up that make hay of human errors. Whoever thought of such a scam?

Amazom (with an m on the end) and Murray's are independently owned operations. But Robert Hoffer, founder of the year-old Typo.Net, believes he might have been the first to see opportunity in doofuses who can't type straight.

"I think unfortunately I'm the guy who started this whole mess," says Hoffer, 34. His company is in Mountain View, Calif. Hoffer explains that every day countless people make mistakes while typing in the uniform resource locator (URL) of a company or an organization. Usually, the URL is preceded by three W's to tell the machine to go to the World Wide Web. That, Hoffer says, is where most folks foul up.

"For someone who is a touch typist, or someone who's not," Hoffer says, "the construct `www' misfocuses your energy and attention so that the next thing you type after that will be a mistake."

Some World Wide Web browsers allow you to skip the "www," but many people type in the full addresses. Typing complex domain names is tiring, he says, and the " `www' creates that initial fatigue." Companies such as Barnes and Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) ask for trouble, he says, because their Internet addresses are so long.

Often people who bang in the wrong address wind up with a "404 Object Not Found" page. This tells you there's no such URL.

But "404 resolves too slowly," Hoffer says. If, however, the mistaken page has been commandeered by Hoffer and Typo.Net, the person who screws up is whisked first to some ads, then to the correct page in a wink, he says.

Hoffer and his partner, Timothy L. Kay, have registered domain names -- about 80 -- that are close to the real things. Typo.Net, for instance, owns the rights to www.Micorsoft.com and www.Yaho.com, bastardizations of sites belonging to Microsoft and the Yahoo search engine.

"We started Typo.Net with the intention of helping the user," Hoffer says. "We wanted to pass them along to the proper URLs."

So if you enter "yaho" instead of "Yahoo," you are transported to a Typo.Net page for a few moments, then to the page that presumably you wanted in the first place. While you're on the Typo.Net page, you stare at an ad or two. "The only way we could figure out how to pay for the service," Hoffer says, "was by advertising."

Hoffer says he's adamantly against the practice of companies, like Amazom (with an m on the end), that "steal traffic into their domains." To him, that's address rustling.

Hoffer adds that lots of companies are snarfing up snafus. "The industry of typographical errors has grown up," he says.

One titan of the industry is Eugene Goland, 28, president of DataArt, a Manhattan-based Internet consulting group. His company, he says, owns more than 200 near-miss addresses, including Yyahoo.com, americanairline.com and indb.com, a mistyped version of imdb.com, the address of the Internet Movie Database.

By roping in errant surfers, Goland promotes an online personal organizer. The ploy is working pretty well, he says. "We have a million visits per month overall."

Another company that owns a lot of mistaken identities -- such as Anazon.com and NYTims.com -- calls itself ABCSearch.com. On the face of it, it's a small search engine. Closer looks reveal advertised links to adult-oriented sites.

When asked about the link from Amazom.com, Jack Bashan of Books.com explains that his company refuses to deal with companies that provide misleading information to customers. He explains that Amazom.com has added a disclaimer at the top of its page. Sure enough, in fine print, Amazom.com protests that it is unrelated to Amazon.com. So, Bashan says, Amazom.com will continue to be a "links partner" with his company and will earn a 12 percent commission on every Books.com sale it generates.

Though Hoffer has no plans to change his strategy, he is remorseful. "Our objective was not to dilute the trademarks," he says, "but to provide a service. We're sorry that this has happened to the world."