Sunday, May 27, 2012

Unspeakable URLs: Y! Japan's Stronghold

While in Japan a couple of weeks ago I had a fascinating conversation with a local software/web person about URLs, Japan, and the mystery (to me) that has always been Y! Japan (Y! Japan is a joint venture between Y! US and Softbank). Now I get it.

Imagine a technology forward society latching onto the Internet simultaneously with the US in the mid-1990's, with great network connectivity and web browsers everywhere. That was Japan. Now realize that the Japanese language is not Latin based, so the characters used to represent words and sentences are vastly different from Latin based languages (like English). No surprises thus far, however, if you are an average English speaking US native, imagine trying to use the web with Japanse characters/words in the URL instead of familiar Latin based characters. Simply put, does http://例え.テスト/メインページ mean anything to you? If you don't understand Japanese, could you convey that over the phone? Could you remember that on a billboard? No, and no are the latter answers of course. The inverse has been the case for Japanese since the dawn of the network which resulted in a completely different initial navigation use case; early search engines.

Enter search engines/directories; Y! specifically, waaaay back in the day long before Google was even around. In Japan, interfacing with the network was done via interfacing with Y!; not the URL bar. As a result, the URL's relevance as a branding mechanism or significant navigation model never caught on. The result is what you'd expect, whichever search engine got to the market first, would be ingrained in the populous.

For those of us in the US, Y! has fallen on hard times. For those in Japan, Y! is synonymous with the Internet itself and they continue to dominate the country in terms of search traffic, property use, and oveall web traffic (most of their products are in 1st place with everyone else in a far off distant 2nd). Y! Japan was there first, and they closed a severe language/character-set gap between the URL bar and its audience. Japanese don't convey URLs in general, instead they convey a keyword or concept, and the receiver of the information will simply search for it on Y!. That results in your Y! search ranking in Japan being the king of everything. If you don't rank well in Y!, you don't exist.

It's worth noting that recently chunks of the network started roughly supporting IDN (internationalized domain names), though they have not caught on at all (oddly).

Back to my conversation with the Japanese local... he was pointing out how frequently US firms come into Japan and expect their marketing efforts to simply translate directly into the Japanese market (after localizing the marketing campaign and products), yet they rarely pan out. He was suggesting, which makes complete sense to me, that the URL component (often the crux of a US marketing campaign), even if translated to Kanji, falls completely flat for the reasons stated above, and it is precisely that which is used to measure success.

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