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Help is here for lost Web surfers

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NEW YORK — Mistype a Web address, and the generic error message that appears in your browser window offers few clues about how to reach the site you're seeking.

VeriSign Inc., which directs traffic for much of the Internet, launched a service Monday that will change all that. For mistyped addresses for which no Web site exists, it will offer you a list of likely alternatives.

Critics complain that the new service, Site Finder, gives a private company too much control over online commerce and lets it profit from an essential monopoly over ".com" and ".net" names.

"It goes against the philosophy of consumer choice," said Michael Froomkin, a University of Miami law professor who follows domain name matters.

Vinton Cerf, one of the Internet's main designers and chairman of a key oversight board for domain names, said the service could violate long-standing Internet standards.

Several Internet service providers, including America Online, already offer similar services for their customers, and Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer browser sometimes directs mistyped queries to its MSN search engine.

But because AOL and Microsoft ultimately get information about ".com" and ".net" names from VeriSign's directory computers, VeriSign could intercept such queries and direct them to Site Finder.

Although VeriSign officials say Internet providers can set up their domain name systems to bypass Site Finder, a test Monday by The Associated Press using both AOL and Microsoft's browser showed such bypassing did not always occur.

And AOL complained.

"We put so much of our research into developing this (AOL) search result page," AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said. "We are reviewing our potential options. We are strongly opposed to them interjecting themselves into our members' search experience."

The service affects only ".com" and ".net" names and won't kick in when someone has already claimed variations that are one or two letters off. Typing "disbey.com" — with a "b" instead of an "n" — gets you a Web site that already registered the name.

But as of Monday afternoon, "earthfink.net" was not registered. Typing in that name got Site Finder's suggestions for "earthlink.net" or "earthfind.com." Users can then type a search query just as they do at Google or browse through preselected categories.

VeriSign began offering Site Finder on Monday, although it may take another day or so before the company finishes activating it worldwide.

Ben Turner, VeriSign's vice president for naming services, described the service as a way to "improve overall usability of the Internet."

People mistype ".com" and ".net" names some 20 million times daily, Turner said, and internal studies show "the vast majority of users prefer a page like this than what they are getting today."

Danny Sullivan, editor of the Search Engine Watch online newsletter, agreed that such a service could be helpful, though he said it could also be abused — for instance, by directing users only to sites that pay to be included.

Currently, Site Finder sends lost Web surfers to both regular search results and pay-for-placement listings, which are marked as such. Turner said VeriSign was partnering with two search companies he would not name.

He would not disclose how much VeriSign would earn from those companies, with which it has revenue-sharing arrangements.

"Right now, VeriSign's business is not a growing business, and anything that they do to add the slightest amount of growth is going to be positive," said Gene Munster, an analyst with U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray Inc.