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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Playing the Name Game on the Wild, Wild Web

April 11, 1999|LAURA BLY

What's in a name?

Sometimes, more than meets the mouse.

Just ask Quikbook, a New York-based hotel discounter that peddles rooms through its Web site, http://www.quikbook.com. Until a federal judge intervened earlier this year, another New York travel agency--with a penchant for conventional spelling--had been luring would-be hotel customers through its own home page, http://www.quickbook.com.

"We didn't find out about it until one of our customers clued us in. When he called the other company, they claimed to be us," says Quikbook spokeswoman Wendy Galfund. Under a court order, her competitor's intuitively spelled Web address now links directly to Quikbook's site.

The Quikbook/Quickbook snafu isn't the only example of unwary travelers being waylaid by the explosive growth of the wild, wild Web. Largely unchecked and unregulated, the Internet's commercial arena is peppered with sites that aren't what they seem--leaving consumers bewildered, exasperated or deceived.

"The industry is still in its infancy, and it's not always easy" to find the organization or company you're searching for, notes Nancy Huddleston of Network Solutions, a Herndon, Va., company that, under contract from the U.S. government, registers more than 7,000 new Web addresses a day that end with .com, .org and .net.

Making an educated guess doesn't necessarily pay off: Typing http://www.holidayinn.com, for example, takes you to the Holiday Inn by the Falls in Niagara Falls, Canada--but nowhere on the home page do you discover that the address for Holiday Inn is actually http://www.basshotels.com/holiday-inn.

Similarly, pointing your Web browser to http://www.williamsburg.com brings you to what's promoted as "The Official Web Site for Williamsburg, Va." But if you're headed for the living history area called Colonial Williamsburg, you'd want http://www.history.org.

Looking for cruise information can be a bumpy ride too. You'll find Princess Cruises' just-launched site at either http://www.princesscruises.com or http://www.princess.com. But plug in http://www.princesscruise.com and you arrive at the Travel Co., a travel agency hawking trips on Princess and other lines.

Even the pros can slip up, as witnessed by the cruise directory found at America Online's Web travel center (http://www.aol.com/directories/cruises.html).AOL's listing for Celebrity Cruise Lines promises "Online reservations for trips to Alaska, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and more." But clicking on the listing brings you not to Celebrity's own site (http://www.celebrity-cruises.com), but to a travel agency site that looks suspiciously like the real McCoy (http://www.asource.com/celebrity). Not until you drill down to the reservations page do you find a disclaimer: "Please note we are a travel agency. We are not the cruise line and cannot help you with employment or with bookings made by other agencies."

So how do you separate good sites from bad--or those that merely delay you from getting where you wanted to go in the first place?

Consider starting your exploration at a major directory site such as Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com) or The MiningCo.Com (http://www.theminingco.com). Both do a good job of culling and organizing travel sites.

When you find a site, be skeptical about who runs it, and why. Look for industry affiliations, company background and contact information, which should include a physical address and phone number as well as e-mail.

Even if a site includes an area for reader feedback, you can check what others are saying about it by running its name through Dejanews (http://www.dejanews.com),a search engine of newsgroups, or bulletin boards, that include dozens of travel topics.

A long, convoluted Web address can also mean trouble, notes Santa Monica-based Barbara Quint, editor of Searcher magazine. Her advice: Take off the information appearing after the first slash, which usually brings you to the site's "front door."

Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Laura Bly welcomes comments at lsbly@aol.com.

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