When hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Japanese Internet users want to Google something their first stop isn't the minimalist home page of the search engine but its biggest competitor: Yahoo Japan.
And that's not by mistake.
On the Yahoo site they type in "Google" to get taken to the home page, bypassing the address bar in their browsers and registering another search for Google in Yahoo's rankings. In 2008 so many surfers used Yahoo to get to the Google home page that it placed as the fourth most searched term of the year -- a position it also held in 2007.
Google isn't the only Web site riding high in Yahoo's ranking.
While U.S.-based Internet users spent last year searching for Britney Spears, WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), Barack Obama and Miley Cyrus, their counterparts in Japan were hitting Yahoo's servers with queries for YouTube, Mixi (a popular social-network site) and the Channel 2 bulletin board.
In fact, Yahoo Japan's 2008 general search ranking top 50 is almost entirely made up of Web site or company names -- the sort of addresses Internet users in other countries know by heart because they've been drummed into their memory with advertisements.
But not in Japan.
The advertisements that sit in front of millions of rail passengers each day often don't feature a Web address even if they're Internet-based businesses. Even Yahoo hasn't bothered to put a Web address on a current campaign for its latest credit card.
Instead, almost all of the advertisements feature a stylized search box with a phrase already entered and, just to the right, a "search" button.
Search technology has gotten so good at pinpointing desired sites from the background noise that makes up the rest of the Internet that many companies are finding it easier to tell people what to search for. And it works out for the users too. With many unable to speak English or any western language, a string of letters can quickly get forgotten but not, for example, "Tanaka lawyer" (in Japanese, of course).
And it's infinitely easier than typing out the URLs read out of TV and radio broadcasts, which sound like something from mission control. Imagine if you were watching the sports news and instead of hearing "You can get more at ESPN dot com" hearing "You can get more at "eitch-tee-tee-pee-colon-slash-slash-w-w-w-dot-e-s-p-n-dot-com." It just isn't easy on the ears.
For many users it is much quicker to type something into Yahoo, which easily outranks Google and other sites as the number-one portal in Japan, than to remember and type a URL.
In the early '90s similar ease-of-use reasons were often used by companies promoting internationalized domain names. "Why force users in other countries to remember English words when they don't speak the language?" was a common sales pitch, but such domain names never took off in Japan. Now, with search engines such a big part of branding and marketing, it seems unlikely they ever will.
So, what else did Japanese Internet users search for beyond Web sites? In the top 50, the non-Web site or company name searches, with their respective positions, were: post codes (12); translation (18); maps (25); price (32) and, perhaps fittingly, "brain maker" entertainment designed to improve memory of such things as the names of people or Web addresses (46).