Human-centred decisions

URLs aren’t good enough

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I am a web enthusiast, but I think we need to find a better way to navigate the web than URLs.

From a purely technical perspective, URLs seem to be well designed. Some people even call it beauty.

But to me, URLs simply do not seem to work for most web users. They are just too difficult for most people to fully understand.

URLs are almost like the command-line interface of the web. Great for geeks. But no use to the vast majority of us.

Command-line interfaces eventually gave way to graphical user interfaces, enabling a much wider group of people to understand and interact with computers. Perhaps a similar revolution needs to take place with URLs?

For some people, that revolution would involve creating “a more digitally literate citizenry”. But any solutions that rely on educating the public about something they don’t really care about are unlikely to work. (See also: Stop trying to fix the user.)

Chris Coyier at CSS-Tricks says, “Anecdotally, I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who doesn’t understand a URL.” But I’m not convinced I’ve met many people that actually do understand a URL — at least fully.

Here is a probably incomplete list of things that almost everyone doesn’t understand about URLs:

  • What is the difference between http and https?
  • If I know https means ‘secure’, what exactly does ‘secure’ mean?
  • What does // mean, do I need it, and if so, why?
  • Do I need to include http(s):// or not?
  • Do I need to include www. or not?
  • Why do some websites work without www., while others don’t work unless I type www., while others still work either with or without www.?
  • Subdomains.
  • Is the website for my bank?
  • Is that website at .com, .net, .org,,,, .biz, or any number of the ridiculous recently-added top-level domains?
  • Where do I type a URL? (How many Google searches are for URLs?)
  • Should I put a / on the end of the URL or not?
  • Would it even matter?
  • What the hell are ports?
  • What does a # mean?
  • What does a ? mean, and what are all those bits after it?
  • What is the difference between a URI and a URL?
  • Typosquatting.
  • Homograph attacks (exа is not the same as — the а in the first example is from the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Latin one — but good luck realising that).
  • How does a URL relate to an IP address?

What’s the solution? I don’t know. But I don’t blame those who are trying to find ways to make all this easier for users.

In the meantime, here’s Brian Butterfield.


One response to “URLs aren’t good enough”

  1. Unfortunately I do not see that any replacement of URL would avoid the listed problems entirely, especially if it is to work on mobiles. More likely, it would swap some of the problems with others, and the more important ones (relating to site identity and security) will just look different, because the problem is with the desirability and ease of tricking consumers (to the point where legitimate companies spend lots of time doing so because being honest looks too complicated to too many consumers).

    Educating the user is difficult, and in some cases impossible, but there are some matters for which no substitute exists or is likely ever to exist.

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