Time Warner Cable Dabbles in Paid Search, Redirection, Usability Annoyance

Time Warner Cable, my ISP at home, has elected to pursue a somewhat controversial route to better monetizing its users: Insinuating itself into their Web surfing behavior.

I’m probably making this sound more nefarious than it really is. The ISP has begun redirecting what it terms “web address errors” to a “helpful search page” — chiefly, a set of Yahoo-powered sponsored search links.

In other words, you mistype a URL, and instead of getting an error, you get a list of paid search links, courtesy of your ISP.

From the company’s FAQ on the practice:

    Why should I use Road Runner’s name redirect service?

    Road Runner’s redirect service makes finding website easier and more convenient. The service uses the entered non-existing website name to determine useful search results. Often, you will see a desired website or page that meets your needs.

Some users, I know, are up in arms over what they see as cybersquatting — taking advantage of typos to make a buck. (Some also have, rightly, pointed out the irony that large companies like Time Warner routinely take a dim view of others buying mistyped versions of their domains names and monetizing accidentally misdirected traffic.)

Still others have pointed out the lax security and verification measures Time Warner has taken with its service.

I’m not getting into the ethical nor security implications of Time Warner inserting its own results page in lieu of a 404. Instead, I want to talk about the usability gaffe they’ve made here.

It might be a different matter altogether if the this “helpful search page” didn’t actually override functionality that some users have actually built into their workflow.

For instance, my girlfriend was looking online for airfares the other evening, and decided to visit Orbitz. She — like I can only assume plenty of others do routinely — typed in “Orbitz” into her browser’s location bar, omitting the rest of the URL as a timesaving measure.

Instead of Safari attempting to parse this into “http://www.orbitz.com” — as many modern browsers are capable of doing — it did something unexpected, sending her instead to Time Warner Cable’s paid results page.

(Guess what the top result was? You’re right — Orbitz.) So, Time Warner actually added another step in getting to her destination, and undermined a user’s accustomed Web-surfing behavior.

To Time Warner’s credit, the ISP does allow users to opt-out of the service, and provides a useful “Why am I here?” link on its search results, to explain the change to confused users.

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