In defense of the URL

Does the URL need defending? The URL has been under attack seemingly since the beginning of the Web. When I was busy launching web sites for magazines and journals in the mid-90s, I remember a radio ad (have no idea what they were advertising) where a clueless sounding guy complained:

“I just double-u double-u double-u don’t get it!”

Back then, the future of the Web and indeed the Internet as a ubiquitous communication medium was far from certain. Scores of voices, including big successful companies like AOL and Microsoft, were still pushing a more “cable TV” type approach to the delivery of digital content and services. In this model, service providers got to control the experience,  and be a funnel for delivery of services to people. Content providers that partnered with AOL would publish their “AOL keyword” on advertisements. Then AOL-competitor Microsoft Network tried to sew up exclusive content deals with newspapers – they wanted to be the sole source for news online. And remember – at this time, if you wanted to use AOL or Microsoft Network (or any of their competitors) you would have to “dial up” to that service, use their client and  then everything you saw from then on would be controlled by that company.

People rejected this approach in favor of the open web. People learned to decouple Internet access from the services they used, the web browser became the way people experienced online services giving those providers direct control over the user experience without any intermediary, and the URL became the cornerstone of that experience. The “dot com” era was born.

The URL is based on the domain name system (DNS) which is distributed in nature and not beholden to any one company, organization or government. Domains are cheap (google.com costs the same as torgo.com) and once you have one you can do whatever you want with it. And once you type the URL of a web site into the address bar of your web browser, you make a direct connection to that service. No intermediary service gets in the way. When you type facebook.com, you go to Facebook. That is the way the web works and one of the reasons it has become such a powerful platform.

My feeling is that after 20+ years, people understand URLs. A 2014 pew research study of users’ “Web IQ” found that 69% of American Internet users knew that URL meant “Uniform Resource Locator.” That frankly surprised me – I think fewer people generally know the term URL. But I bet if you presented people with a URL and asked them “what is this?” they would tell you something like “it’s a web address,” “it’s a web site,” “it’s an internet address,” “it’s a link” or something that indicated they basically knew what it was. Furthermore, I bet most people would know what to do with that if you put them in front of a web browser and told them to go to that site. Yes – some of them would go google and then type the URL into the search box. They would still get to the site in question.

So why do marketers still seem bent on the URL’s destruction? Today I came across a bit of advertising on the Tube from Transport-for-London (the organization that runs the Tube)

This tweet elicited an almost instantaneous response:

The thing is: @Codepope isn’t wrong. But he doesn’t need to be wrong for me to be right. Yes, people do search more than they type URLs in. That doesn’t mean we should be ditching URLs in favor of pointing people to search engines. TFL could just as easily have posted a URL such as “tfl.gov.uk/delays” which would give people exactly the information they are looking for without any intermediary step. And, as discussed, if people typed that into a search engine it would go to the same place – search engines are savvy that way. But sending people to a search engine with a few random words defies logic in that it cedes back power and control of the experience to intermediaries (search engines and app stores). The argument on the “pro search” side seems to be “people can remember them better” but (a) I don’t see any evidence and (b) isn’t this a self-fulfilling prophecy? Surely it’s in the best interest of content and service providers to keep people using their URLs as it eliminates the middleman and allows people to connect to them directly.

I just  W W W don’t get it!

My actual theory of why marketers want to kill the URL: they don’t see an angle in it. A marketer who has been going to SEO conferences all year and getting an ear-full about how to cook search results by spending money takes a look at the relatively cheap URL and says “that can’t be as good because it doesn’t cost as much” which leads through a kind of sunk cost bias to the notion that search terms are easier to remember than URLs.

My research on this topic has shown me one thing: researching use of the URL is really hard. Unfortunately, I think this because most search engines aggressively ignore the term URL. I haven’t found any research studies that support or weaken my hypothesis. That Pew study gave me some hope that I’m not entirely off-base though. What do you reckon?

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One comment on “In defense of the URL
  1. Fully agree that the open nature of the URL can’t be improved on. What bugs me is the REST API crowd claiming the benefits of the URL without supplying the hard diplomatic technology work of creating the media type, which is after all what unlocks the power of the URL.

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