Friday, 22 February 2008

Circle URL, pt 3

I wasn't going to keep posting about about the circle URL idea but it's such a good case study, I can't help milking it. From an entrepreneur's perspective it's worth a closer look at exactly why I think it can't work.

Firstly I should say that I'm a bit confused about what the auction is selling so I hope I'm not too far off base with my comments. The auction seems to be for the domains, but there's already a service running at so I guess that's what the product is. Initially I thought the plan would be to sell or use individual URLs for different websites but then I started thinking maybe the owner is expected to keep all 264 domains, so the same website would be found by typing any circle URL. It would certainly work better in the latter case.

It's still a dog though. Here's why...

  • It's unconventional, meaning that it breaks the normal convention people are used to. That can be a good thing in some cases but most of the time it's a handicap. In this case the existing convention is so strong and the new convention is so different, it's going to be a big problem.
  • For a new convention to work "in the wild" it has to reach a critical mass, i.e. it must reach the point where enough people know about it that you don't need to keep explaining it. Since there are less than 300 domains in this package (and possibly only one actual website) that's unlikely to happen. I don't imagine the general public ever knowing what I mean if I say I have a circle URL.
  • The point above would be negated if the website in question was popular enough. For example, if Google launched this website people might adapt and "get it" because it's Google. However people aren't going to make the same effort for an unknown brand. It's a catch-22: The gimmick won't work until the brand reaches critical mass, but you are relying on the gimmick to get there.
  • If I'm right so far, every time you give someone a circle URL you also have to give them instructions on how it works. That's bad in so many ways I don't know where to start. The best example is the auction itself - it takes several sentences just to explain what a circle URL means. Try that in the mass market where people make browsing decisions in a split second. BTW most people don't read help files or instructions.
  • Circle URLs are not easy to remember or use. I still have to think consciously about how to enter the URL. Call me a linear thinker but the circle shape on a keyboard is not at all obvious to me. I watched someone else try it and she didn't really get it either (two people don't make a scientific poll but it's a bad start). If I was doing it every day it might become second nature but that's not going to happen.
  • The URLs don't just look terrible, they look like spammer URLs. Ouch.
  • The idea is that the domain owner owns a "shape" just like Nike owns the swoosh. The problem is that the swoosh is a simple, consistent, easily recognizable logo that competes with other shapes in a known convention. The circle URL is none of those things, it's just confusing.
  • The cost of maintaining all the circle domains needs to be factored in, although if you're spending $750,000 you probably don't care.
  • In summary, this is a question of whether it's easier to remember a traditional (word) URL or a circle URL. I can't accept that even the most difficult word URL is more difficult to remember and use than a circle URL.

You can do a lot of promotion for $750,000. A better business proposal would be to get a standard domain name and promote it well. No gimmicks required.

Despite my feelings about this as a business idea, I congratulate nottiger on having the idea in the first place. It's a fine example of lateral thinking. I would eat my hat with tabasco sauce if the circle URL convention becomes popular, but I'd be willing to bet that nottiger has some genuinely good ideas somewhere in his head. I wish him well.

One last point - this auction does raise the issue of limited domain names. nottiger is onto something there. The market is hanging out for a better way to remember URLs, or indeed a replacement system for URLs altogether. TNBT?


  1. Hi Dave

    nottiger here - the seller

    You make some excellent points _there are real critical mass barriers with really NEW (or "stupid") ideas

    And using the circle URLs for the first time is confusing

    But to my knowledge the really big opportunities often live in being first

    We are first

    AS to the success of this auction - doubtful! - but how this shape based URL will be viewed in time - well none of us can know.......

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis - it makes interesting reading



  2. Thanks for the comment nottiger. I also read your rebuttals at the auction and I have to say you're putting up a spirited defence against the onslaught.

    I can't believe how much time I've spent talking about this recently. I spent quite a while with a couple of marketing friends going over the pros and cons and it made for some engaging conversation. Although it didn't change my overall opinion, I am starting to appreciate some of the points you've made.

    Interestingly, one of my friends picked up on the circle concept straight away and quickly anticipated how different URLs would work. She saw potential applications for a very large and visible organisation such as an emergency service coordinator. Unfortunately she's the only person I've seen so far who adapted so easily, most others have struggled with it.

    Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of the idea is that it's a "one-off" deal. I can see why that might be appealing to someone with lots of spare cash for speculative investments. It would be more than brave to invest 6 figures in it, but hey, that's not a lot of money for some people. I guess you never know.

  3. Hi Dave,

    Thanks - spirited or just plain pig-headed?

    Most people when first faced with the concept/reality of shape based URLs say "what?" "explain again?" "that's silly" " I don't understand"

    One of the most telling moments for me was a person I hardly know accessing the site 2 months after I had shown him the circle URLs ONCE very briefly. So 2 months later I said to him on the phone " the way we have that web function up and running" .... to which he replied ... "I know" and I said "...but how?..." and he said "Oh I was wondering so just did a circle and saw it was working.."

    The one person you have found cottoned on quickly - yes she is in the minority

    However (and to continue my spirited defense :-)) We have noted that once people have the concept they are stuck with it

    SO I agree that the uniqueness may be it's first advantage but it's long term advantage is that you do not need to remember a word or even a letter sequence such as - just a universal shape. The non English nature also is a sneaky benefit ...

    Oh and by the way - the circles are intended to all point to ONE page so you were correct there in the earlier post