Japanese ads downplay URLs, encourage searches

Cabel Maxfield Sasser recently went to Japan and noticed an interesting trend in advertising there: search boxes have replaced URLs.
Picture 1-160 Within minutes of riding on the first trains in Japan, I notice a significant change in advertising, from train to television. The trend? No more printed URL's. The replacement? Search boxes! With recommended search terms!

It makes sense, right? All the good domain names are gone. Getting people to a specific page in a big site is difficult (who's going to write down anything after the first slash?). And, most tellingly, I see increasingly more users already inadvertently put complete domain names like "gmail" and "netflix" into the Search box of their browsers out of habit – and it doesn't even register that Google pops up and they have to click to get to their destination.



  1. This is happening here in the States as well, even for companies with easy-to-remember URLs.

    Here in Boston there are a large number of posters for Kellogs cereal, which, instead of showing a URL, say “Find us on Yahoo!” and have a big picture of a large Yahoo search box with “kellogs” typed in the search field.

    My assumption was that it wasn’t so much that they wanted to make it easy for the consumer, but that they were advertizing Yahoo at the same time — Yahoo probably paid Kellogs a fair bit, or at least paid for part of the ad campaign. Some web chatter agrees: http://sphinn.com/story/988

    So it’s quite likely that those Japanese search engines are getting a piece of the action.

  2. By doing it through the search engine, they also potentially improve their score in the search engine algorithms for the related keywords.

  3. The Japanese also use QCodes a lot. They’re 2-d barcodes that you see typically on UPS packaging here in the states. You can take a photo of them with your cellphone, it’ll read the barcode, and take you to a website describing the product/location in more detail, and maybe even a GPS coordinate if your phone supports it.

    It’s like a printed augmented reality, and you’ve got the decoder ring in your pocket. Very cool.

  4. I remember a few TV ads for the Pontiac Torrent where they had changed the original ad to include a white Google screen with “Pontiac Torrent” in the search field. I had assumed that this was because people were typing in Torrent and getting lots of links for Bittorrent instead.

    Honestly, if you are typing site names into a search box, just put it in the address bar once and be lazy afterwards by just typing the first few letters and clicking or using arrows and hitting enter. I can give lots of lessons on being lazy with the Internet.

  5. Quote And, most tellingly, I see increasingly more users already inadvertently put complete domain names like “gmail” and “netflix” into the Search box of their browsers out of habit — and it doesn’t even register that Google pops up and they have to click to get to their destination.

    If you mispell the URL in the address bar you are sent to a porn site (or other unintended destination). I always type non-bookmarked URLs into the Google search box.

  6. I remember some stupid ad from not too long ago that encouraged viewers to google Pontiac. Fuck that. This isn’t 1995 AOL. We all know how to type a god damn URL.

  7. This has been my line of thinking for some time now… I don’t know when it morphed.

    But instead of trying to remember if it was “papajohns.com” or “papa-johns.com” or “papajohnspizza.com” when I try to order a pizza, the ease of just typing “papa john pizza” into the address bar of Firefox (default search: Google) and having it just pop up the right site it a fundamental shift from 10 years ago. 9 in 10 times, as long as you use enough words, you don’t have to deal with a list of Google results — it just ushers you straight to the link you’re looking for.

  8. I was in India recently and noticed that instead of URLs many ads (on billboards, TV, radio, etc) gave out 5 digit SMS numbers (like “SMS ‘info’ to 45233 for details about …”) Presumably, you get a reply with more information.

  9. And, most tellingly, I see increasingly more users already inadvertently put complete domain names like “gmail” and “netflix” into the Search box of their browsers out of habit — and it doesn’t even register that Google pops up and they have to click to get to their destination.

    My fiancee totally does this on a regular basis and it never occurred to me that it might be common behavior.

  10. Surely this is no diffrent to the ‘Keyword’ system that US TV has been using for years…. i.e. ‘AOL keyword ABC’ rather than just saying ‘abc.com’?

    The searching for URL thing really annoys me, a colleague of mine types every url direct into Google. Whenever I’ve seen a site showing what peopel are searching for there’s always loads of urls appearing… madness

  11. Not sure if this is still true, but for years, “yahoo.com” was the #1 Google search. Just because people can’t tell (or don’t care about) the difference between the URL bar and the search field.

    I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s definitely food-for-thought for UI designers.

  12. An advantage of using search terms instead of URLs is that they can be in the local language. I’m pretty sure non-Roman domain names are now available, but I think the TLDs still have to be Roman (if I’m wrong, I’m sure some happy mutant will correct me). With a search term, it can be entirely Japanese.

  13. if you are typing site names into a search box, just put it in the address bar once and be lazy afterwards by just typing the first few letters and clicking or using arrows and hitting enter.

    You obviously never clear your cache. The District Attorney will appreciate that when they seize your computer for evidence. They won’t have to bother subpoenaing your records.

  14. @Antinous: How dare you criticize my cache-clearing hygiene! Actually, the addresses expire from the quick-complete list quick enough that even the typo’d names clear out with enough regularity not to bother me.

    If seized, my computer would probably have to go through rehabilitation and physical therapy before it was well enough to be interrogated.

  15. “cache clearing hygiene”! Love it. I myself toss the laptop into a woodchipper at the end of the day and pull a new box off the pile in the morning.

  16. thats poor advertising, what if your rival outranks you in the search results?
    Or maybe they lack confidence in their websites

  17. How dare you criticize my cache-clearing hygiene

    I do it regularly just because it seems to cut down on glitches. It’s voodoo, but it works.

  18. How about:

    From a PC World Article: “…”Cybersquatting cases filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) arbitration system increased 20% in 2005 and another 25% in 2006,” McAfee writes in its report. “Microsoft says that ‘on an average day more than 2,000 domain names are registered that contain Microsoft trademark terms.'”

    McAfee’s report, titled What’s In A Name: The State of Typo-Squatting 2007, details the scope of the problem.

    “A typical consumer who misspells a popular URL has a 1 in-14 chance of landing at a typo-squatter site,” McAfee writes.

    Game sites — such as miniclip.com and runescape.com — are the most frequent targets, having a 14% chance of being squatted. Airline sites are next at 11.4%; mainstream media sites like vh1.com and qvc.com are third at 10.8%; dating sites are fourth at 10.2%; and technology and Web 2.0-related sites are fifth at 9.6%.

    “These squatter-run sites generate click-through advertising revenues, lure unsuspecting consumers into scams and harvest e-mail addresses to flood users with unwanted e-mail,” McAfee states in a press release.

    Apple’s iPhone is becoming a frequent target of typo-squatting. There could be at least 8,000 URLs registered using the word iPhone by the end of the year, according to an estimate cited by McAfee.”

    You spin the wheel, you take your chances…..

  19. A lot of newbie computer users (and some who are not so newbie at all!) put URLs into google rather than type directly into the address bar. They don’t even KNOW that you CAN type in the address bar! So, I suppose it makes sense…

  20. @DJAM: The ads will probably never tell you to search for their company name instead a general product type. I can’t read kanji so I couldn’t tell what the ads in the picture above say, but I’d stake a toe on it.

    This sure is turning a corner for companies like google and yahoo though, the more accepted this becomes the more they transform from optional “help-you-find-it” sites to mandatory stops on the internet superhighway.

    Yeah, I said it. MUHAHAHAH

  21. Heheh, yeah, another thing I’ve gotten used to, but used to think was strange…

    #15 nailed it, I think. By telling people to search for the actual name of the company, instead of guessing at the romanization of the name, they are much more likely to get it.

    #22 isn’t far off either. Japanese computer users are not very savvy.

    I’m pretty sure that Yahoo owns Japan. Portal site like that are most people’s first stop, and actually seem to do a large share of ecommerce. What my wife and I often do if we are going to buy something online is compare prices on a company’s Yahoo storefront to the one on their Rakuten storefront. They’re different sites, and sometimes have different deals!

  22. Like some commenters above, my first thoughts were “this is just like AOL-type Keywords”. I never really understood that either, but there has been some interesting reasoning posted here.

    Also, regarding urls in search-boxes: I have google as my homepage, and when I hit CTRL (or the apple key) +N and get a new window, the focus will be automatically in the google search-box, meaning I tend to just type half the url, hit the return key and select, rather than manually selecting the address bar and typing the full address. Technically It may be as many or more clicks, but sometimes its just less think-cycles in a quick-reponse situation..

    Also, bookmarking URLs (in Safari, at least) will keep them in the auto-complete list, even after you have cleared the cache.. As Certron says, this lets the misspells slip away, whilst keeping the correct ones.

  23. I remember commenting to my son when this emerged that they must be *very* sure of their search results. And no, one can’t assume that it’s Google — Yahoo is the 900 pound gorilla of Japanese search, and there are other playas.

    There’s always of course paid placement.

    I think the reasons for this are mostly covered above: confusion in romanization, the ability to search for the exact character or phrase. But there are a couple of contributing factors:

    – The lack of distinct company names. Most companies are named after their founders. asahi.co.jp leads to the Asahi Broadcasting Co. and not Asahi Beer or Asahi Pentax cameras.

    – This one I’m sure is the biggie: ISP service here is terrible, and it’s quite difficult for small companies to get a website up at, e.g., akikosflowers.jp. (Again, Yahoo is helping here.) Far more likely poor Akiko will end up with some long URL five levels deep on the ISP’s fifth server. Combined with some real management level bonerheadedness when it comes to selecting URLs at large companies (a certain hamburger joint is advertising mdq.jp on their packaging, and the only reason I remember that is it stuck in my head as an example of bonerheadedness — and that’s small potatoes compared to some I’ve seen).

  24. I get most everywhere by typing stuff (even domain names) into a search box. And it’s not because I’m a noob; I’ve been on the interweb since ever.
    Certainly my memories of an ad are more likely to produce good search terms than an exact URL, and even with a url, I can drop the “http://www.” and less typing, and I’m protected from most typos.
    I don’t see why this is regarded as something unsavvy or crazy users do. It’s just better. Typing in the address bar is for people stuck in their old, inefficient ways.

  25. There’s a flip side to this. On several occasions now I have had complaints from our users that the webmail system was “broken”. After trying to debug the problem remotely, I eventually have to go over to their office to figure out what’s going on – and what I find is that they’re typing the name of the webmail application into google, clicking on the first link, and trying to login to somebody else’s copy.

    When I explain this, they just look at me blankly. They can’t conceive of the notion that this wouldn’t work. I end up having to create icons for them that open the web browser at the right page, because google has destroyed their ability to use bookmarks or URLs.

    (Yes, the more web-savvy users can handle it, but that’s not the point)

  26. Um, this has nothing to do with keywords per se and everything to do with localization. Japan is a mobile-centric market. Their cellphones are designed around the native language. So in terms of speed and efficiency, it makes a lot more sense to do a search with Japanese characters than switch to typing out the romanized URL.

    Think about if Japan and the Japanese language had become the dominant driver for the Internet. Would it be faster for you to search for “Apple” in a local English-based search engine or switch your cellphone to Japanese input mode and type out Japanese characters for what would be the Japanese URL of Apple Inc.?

  27. @Oheso – I believe you are spot on, and there’s alot of good insight in these comments. Last time I was there (2005) I couldn’t believe how many completely un-memorizable URLs were _still_ featured on ads. So weird to see a company that could afford an ad in a train station, but the URL was, like, “http://www.next99.co.jp/english_class/~signup_5432.html”
    ….or something.

    And, yes, if there is any doubt – Yahoo rules Japan.

  28. At the risk of sounding stupid, I’ve found that searching for a YouTube video in the Google box gets faster results than going to YouTube & searching from there!

  29. I gave up on URLs forever ago. I let the computer do the thinking at the search levels, which isn’t always the best result, but 99% of the time it’s easier than re-doing the terms over and over again while I try to remember the correct addy. And just when I think my cache is cleared, I swear I get a suggestion for something from long ago. Sometimes I might run across something more defined or interesting than what I intended – Mr. Sasser should have some experience at finding the unexpected, I reckon, and it can be quite time consuming if one gets too far into it.

  30. I usually use URLs. I don’t see why people think these are outdated; I enter in one thing and I hit enter. It may be my spry youthliness and carpal tunnel preparing fingers of doom. I used firefox keywords for a while, shortening them dramatically; ‘bb’ for- guess where! and ‘cad’ for the webcomic, ‘edu’ for my school.

    Now that computer crashed and I’m not too eager to get them back. The difference between two characters and twenty’s not that much for me. Then again, I still sometimes catch myself dialing numbers of friends I don’t have on speed dial. I’m just inefficient and set in my old ways.

  31. I use URLs. You certainly don’t have to type in http or www to use a URL. You frequently don’t need to type the .com/net/whatever. If I just type “BoingBoing”, into the URL field of Firefox it brings me here.

  32. Spammers have been advertising searches for a while now, as a technique for getting around URL blacklists. If you make some unusual combination of words point to a page, then you can have a Google search take you to that unique spamvertised page.

  33. kpkpkp@11:

    Realnames was a perfectly valid idea but needed to be accepted by the browser makers at the time to work properly, and for some reason they couldn’t make the inroads to be anything other than a third party plugin. Google effectively killed it because it could search on more abstract keywords than Realnames could. I *think* the rump of the operation is still administered by one of the big domain services.

    One of their first big demonstrations at one of the big Internet trade shows or somesuch went a bit wrong: the CTO was demonstrating a number of names and said ‘If you type in Bambi, it goes to Disney’s site’. It very much didn’t…

  34. the reason searches are used instead of URLs has been touched upon, but in the English-speaking world we’re not so used to being told specifically which search terms to use.

    The reason they give the specific keyword, is to do with the difficulty of getting accurate search results with Japanese owing to its use of three native writing systems plus roman characters interchangeably and non-exclusively.
    For example, a search for ‘Asahi’ could be typed as any of these: 朝日/あさひ/アサヒ/Asahi

    The adverts give a search term which is guaranteed to bring the required page up as the #1 result instead of having to search two or three times.

  35. @Antinous: You’re actually using the search method there. In Firefox if you type something that isn’t a URL into the address bar, it does a Google “I’m Feeling Lucky” search and sends you to the first link – so you’re doing a search for boingboing each time!

  36. I created telldodo.com to serve exactly this purpose: replace URLs with easy to remember, easy to pronounce, easy to spell UNIQUE keywords.

    Perhaps I should hook up with someone in Japan to create a Japanese version of telldodo. Let me know if you have an interest in developing this idea…

  37. I’ve been doing this for at least a year now, I use the Firefox Gogole search to get to all web sites. If I’m pretty sure my search will get me directly to the site I type the search into the address/url, Firefox does a “I’m feeling lucky with google” and bingo I’m there.

    This is especially handy when I want to wiki things. Type “wiki Kansas Nebraska” into your Firefox address line and bingo the Wikipedia page for the Kansas-Nebraska act shows up.

    If I go to Wikipedia and type in “Kansas Nebraska” i get a result page that I have to click through again (that’s three page loads vs. one!).

    Plus I can never get the address right anymore by guessing. Even the .net in boingboing messes me up, and I should know that one.

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