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Bypassing the Search Engine: Using Direct Navigation to Your Advantage

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Marketers assume that "googling" for information is an automatic response the instant a Web surfer opens a browser. And the theory holds true for many Internet users.

But for a number of reasons, and with increasing regularity, many people bypass search engines altogether in favor of a technique called direct navigation. Simply put, direct navigation is when a user directly types a Web address into a browser.

The concept of direct navigation is as old as the Web—Internet users frequently key in their favorite sites stored in their personal memory. To put this into context, WebSideStory's StatMarket division notes that more than two-thirds of daily global Internet users arrive at a Web site via direct navigation, compared with just 14 percent from search engines.

But the phenomenon of direct navigation to generically named sites with an "intent to search" is a relatively new concept that shifts how marketers must think about their own Web site traffic and how consumers are finding information about the things that interest them.

Marketers are turning to direct navigation programs to compliment their search campaigns for a number of reasons, including the emergence of programs like AdSense and other technologies that can populate unused Web domains with information to create mini-portals. Online consumers are turning to these "parked" Web sites—pages populated mostly by relevant keyword ads—because they can sometimes produce better, quicker results that avoid the manipulated listings that increasingly clog search engine results for highly commercial keyword terms.


In fact, it is estimated by several organizations that traffic to "parked" pages drives about 10% of the pay-per-click (PPC) ad market. Even more interesting, WebSideStory found that direct navigation had a 4.23% conversion-to-sale rate, while search engine clicks on average lead to a 2.3% conversion-to-sale rate.

With that much quality traffic heading to these generic sites, organizations are now considering how to capture that traffic directly. Consider that a parked page like Wifi.com, for example, captures 15,000 monthly targeted visitors. Purchasing this volume of traffic through a pay-per-click search engine would cost nearly $10,000 per month (based on the current top Yahoo bid price of $0.66 for the term "Wifi"). Yet we have the domain name currently listed for sale at domain marketplace Sedo.com with an asking price of $350,000—an investment that would pay for itself in under three years—even faster if current trends of rising traffic and click prices continue. So instead of writing a hefty check to Google or Yahoo every month, why not purchase the domain and secure this traffic for life?

Marketers can use generic targeted domain names as a traffic source in three primary ways:

  1. Simply re-direct the domain to your main site. Examples: Books.com (Barnes & Noble), PC.com (Intel), Loans.com (Bank of America), Website.com (DotEasy), RentalCar.com (Enterprise)

  2. Use the domain as a targeted vertical portal to drive traffic to your main site. This method requires more effort but is more likely to lead to increasing traffic over time, generate higher conversion rates, and strengthen your position as a leader in a given market category. Examples: Baby.com (Johnson & Johnson), Meningitis.com (Chiron Vaccines)

  3. Re-brand your entire operation on the new generic domain. Obviously, this is the most extreme example, but there are many advantages to branding your company on a premium generic domain: You instantly gain credibility as a leader in your space, and you generally garner higher conversion-to-sale ratios with less expenditure on marketing and brand-building. Examples: DealTime and Epinions become Shopping.com; Ice.com becomes Diamond.com.

Finding the Right Domains for Direct Navigation

There are a number of things to consider when determining which domain names to acquire in your direct navigation initiatives. Much of it gets back to marketing basics: Who are your audience and how can you reach them?

  1. Taken from a customer perspective, what are they looking for that you have to offer? Don't just think of which "category" you position yourself in, but how do your customers describe you/your product? Acquiring the .com version of your most productive SEM keyword terms is usually a good place to start.

  2. Keep it simple. One-word domains or very short phrases offer the greatest value and highest traffic.

  3. Choose the right extension. Generally .com domains are the best choice as they receive a magnitude more type-in traffic than other extensions. However, if you're interested in traffic from a particularly country, you may be better off acquiring the country-code version of the domain name—for example, .co.uk for traffic from the United Kingdom.

  4. Keep it generic. Registering a variation of your competitor's site or products rather than generic descriptive terms could put you in conflict with trademark law.

  5. Research traffic volume before buying. Some domain sellers or domain marketplaces will provide guidance as to how many visitors the domain currently receives. Otherwise, a handy rule of thumb is that direct navigation traffic volume is generally correlated to search query volume for that keyword, which you can research using Yahoo's Keyword Selector Tool (http://inventory.overture.com).

Once you identify the domains you'd like, there are a variety of ways to acquire them. If you're lucky and the domains are still available, you just need to choose a domain registrar and pay an annual registration fee of $10 to $35. If the domains are already taken—and most good traffic domains are— you still have options: you can try researching the domain owner and making an unsolicited offer, or browse the listings at a domain name marketplace where you'll find thousands of high-traffic domain names that are definitely for sale.

If all of that sounds like a bit too much work, you can always hire a domain broker to do all of the legwork, including tracking down owners, negotiating a price, and assisting with the ownership transfer.

Direct Navigation as a Marketing Investment

As a marketer, investing in direct navigation generally pays for itself within a year or two, dependent of course on the quality of the domain and how well you can convert the traffic into sales. However, instead of being an expense as with purchasing clicks from a search engine, acquiring a domain (or portfolio of domains) for direct navigation purposes becomes an asset that retains its value (possibly even increasing in value) and can even be re-sold in the future should your marketing objectives change.

Domain name prices have risen dramatically over the past years as the supply of quality names becomes ever smaller; with more and more businesses coming online every day, that picture is unlikely to change.

Only a few very savvy firms have already discovered that in this click-hungry era, when many companies blow tens of thousands of dollars each month on PPC advertising, that purchasing targeted generic domain names delivers the same type of high-quality targeted visitors at a much, much lower cost.


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Matt Bentley is Chief Strategy Officer at Sedo.

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