In the early days of the Internet, when you mistyped a Web address or entered an address that did not exist, your browser was redirected to a Web site with a stark, black-and-white message: "Error Page Not Found."
Now, if you're using Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, you're likely to be redirected to a Microsoft page with a search box for its MSN Search service. Soon, you could be directed instead to a page containing a search box -- but one provided by your Internet service provider using technology from a Reston company called Paxfire Inc.
From left, company founders Sezen Uysal, Mark Lewyn and Alan Sullivan have devised a way for ISPs to profit from error-and-search Web sites.
(Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
Name: Paxfire, Inc.
Big idea: Developed a technology that enables Internet service providers to collect traffic from typing errors and redirect it to a Web page with a search box and sponsored links. The ISPs and Paxfire split the revenue generated by the paid links.
Web site: www.paxfire.com
Who's in charge: Mark Lewyn, founder and president; Alan Sullivan, founder and chief executive; and Sezen Uysal, founder and chief technology officer.
Funding: Paxfire received $100,000 from Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology Growth Acceleration Program. The company also has private investors.
Employees: Lewyn would not disclose the company's employee count, but he said the firm is hiring and has plans to expand.
Partners: Paxfire forms revenue-sharing partnerships with all of its ISP customers.
Origin of company name: "We were looking for a name that came from Latin," Sullivan said. "We hit upon 'pax' which in Teutonic means 'messenger' and in Latin means 'peace.' We were thinking of something that would go with that and would signify that the technology would spread very quickly across the Internet, and we got 'fire.' "
"Traffic is the coin of the realm" on the Web, said Mark Lewyn, president and founder of Paxfire. "He who captures the most traffic collects the most money." So those daily mistakes, known as "trash traffic," are a potential gold mine, he said, when they are redirected to an error-and-search page that has links to advertisers. Lewyn said the key to Paxfire is that it operates through an Internet service provider. "We're turning the address bar of every subscriber to an ISP into a search bar," Lewyn said. "But we're not distributing software to anyone's desktop."
The concept of capitalizing on trash traffic has been around for a while. In September 2003, VeriSign Inc., the Mountain View, Calif., company that operates the ".com" and ".net" Internet registries, launched a program called Site Finder that automatically redirected mistyped Web addresses to a VeriSign Web page with a search box and advertiser links. Site Finder sparked a furor among Web users who didn't like being forced to look at ads and technology enthusiasts who said VeriSign was abusing its role as a gatekeeper of Web addresses. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers the regulatory body for the Internet, forced VeriSign to shut down the service after a few weeks.
Few had noticed that Paxfire, in partnership with NeuStar Inc., a District company that runs the ".biz" and ".us" registries, conducted a trial of a similar redirect program five months before VeriSign's. It was also removed under pressure from ICANN and the Department of Commerce, which oversees the .us registry.
"Registries are treated like public utilities," Lewyn said. "Even though they're public companies, there are regulatory strictures about what they are and aren't allowed to do. We realize as a small company that we cannot fight regulatory bodies."
So Lewyn and his co-founders, Alan Sullivan and Sezen Uysal, hit upon the idea of creating a technology that would work through Internet service providers. "Everyone will say the right place to do this is at the ISP level," Lewyn said, because ISPs are private companies that run private networks in an unregulated environment.
Lewyn said each ISP that uses Paxfire has its own "landing page" to which users who make typing erros are redirected. ISPs can customize the page with their branding and with paid and unpaid links. When a user clicks on a sponsored link, Paxfire and the ISP split the resulting revenue. Users can also opt out of the program, which they couldn't do with the Internet registries.
Lewyn said Paxfire has signed up a number of ISPs, although he declined to say how many. PatriotNet, an ISP based in the George Mason University Enterprise Center in Fairfax, is among its customers. Cynthia H. de Lorenzi, PatriotNet's chief executive, said allowing typing errors to be redirected to Microsoft's search page is "leaving a lot of money on the table."