URLs are already dead

Last week, there was a fair bit of furor when Jake Archibald wrote an article1 describing an experimental feature in Chrome that hides all but the domain name of the URL you’re on. The idea is very similar to what already happens in the iOS 7 version of Safari: once navigation is underway, the URL is hidden and only the domain name is visible in the location bar. If you want to get to the full URL, then you either click or set focus back to the location bar (in Chrome, you click the domain name).

I’ll admit, the first time I encountered this behavior in iOS 7, I was a bit surprised. I quickly came to not only understand it, but also appreciate it. I’m able to tell at a glance what site I’m on and I can easily get to the URL if I want it. In the meantime, it’s a nice, clean interface that doesn’t disrupt my usage pattern.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this move was not only okay for the web, but it is the next logical step in a process that has been ongoing for sometime now.

We don’t own the web

We geeks tend to forget that we don’t own the web. The web is not just for us. We are its caretakers. We groom it and coax it to grow in certain directions. The web is for everyone, that means geeks and non-geeks alike. And whether we like it or not, there are for more non-geeks than there are geeks in the world. The grandparents and parents, the barely computer-literate middle-aged folk, the kids who don’t really know how to speak yet. The web is for all of them.

If you look back at the history of the internet, you’ll see evidence of this from its early days. There was almost always a push for average folks to be online. America Online and Prodigy grew to be successful because they hid all of the ugliness of the internet at that point in time. Gopher and FTP and even email, to some extent, were hard for people to use and understand. Online services that abstracted away the geeky parts flourished.

The web came after that as a way to continue the forward progress. Those online services represented lock-in, and the web was a promise of unfettered access to all of the information available online. It succeeded because it replicated the most consumer-friendly parts of those online services (embedded images, simple click-to-navigate interactions, and so on).

However, the web of the 1990s was still hostile to people who weren’t tech savvy. It was filled with potential hazards at every turn, from sending credit card information in plain text to email phishing. The consumers of the day fell victim far more frequently than we do today for several reasons: the knowledge of what was good and bad, what was useful or useless, was only available and understandable by geeks. Average people were lost.

Goodbye protocols

About ten years ago, I was showing a teenager something online when he asked me a startling question, “Why are you typing ‘http://’?” I told him that this specified the protocol that I was using to retrieve information from the internet.

“No,” he continued, “I mean why are you typing it? The browser just adds it for you when you hit Enter.”

Was it true? I tried it. Yes, he was right. I explained to him that “when I was his age” we had to type the full protocol into the browser or else it wouldn’t work.

“That’s dumb,” he replied.

He was right. It was dumb to type in the protocol when most of the time it was the same. So browsers changed to insert the protocol for you automatically. No one types “http://” anymore because it’s another thing you can easily get wrong and the average person wouldn’t understand what went wrong. What’s a protocol anyway?

These days, browsers have more or less done away with protocols altogether. There are really only two that are of consequence for end-users: “http” and “https”. And when you come down to it, all an end-user really needs to understand is that one is secure and one is not. The best way to show that is through some kind of imagery and/or color change.

Most browsers now use colors and lock icons to indicate the level of security employed by the domain. For example, Internet Explorer 11 uses green and a lock icon to for extended verification certificates. So what will people notice? The protocol or the visuals?

Goodbye email addresses

Email addresses are fairly simple, and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a simpler alternative. Yet, how many email addresses do you know by heart these days? I know my mom, my dad, and myself, and that’s only because I set all of them up. I have no idea what email address my friends or colleagues use, even my brother’s email address is a mystery to me. Why is that?

Because email addresses represent routing information, and when I’m writing an email I’m not thinking about routing information, I’m thinking about the person to whom I’m writing. Email clients know this and so they will automatically look up email addresses based on the name you enter.

Gmail, for instance, shows every email address matching a given name. When you’re done typing the name, only the name remains in the To field (unless you have multiple email addresses for the same name, then it shows the email address as well).

The truth is, the actual email address is usually unimportant. All we really need is to be sure the message is going to the correct person. We rely on contacts lists to keep track of email addresses that we need and look them up as necessary. It’s nice that we can easily share that information over the phone with a friend, but then that friend likely adds it to a contact list under the person’s actual name as well.

Aside: goodbye phone numbers

As a brief aside, I liken email addresses to phone numbers. At one point, you absolutely had to memorize phone numbers to have a pleasant experience. It was horrible needing to dig out your personal phone book or, heaven forbid, the white or yellow pages to look up a phone number. So, we all walked around with a bunch of phone numbers in our head to make the process simpler.

With the popularity of mobile phones, however, we have largely contributed to the demise of the phone number. Phone numbers are now things you don’t even need to know – they are stored in your phone and used by telling the phone who you want to call. It’s the same mode of operation as email. Tell the device who you want to contact and it will do you the favor of using the correct routing information.

Some would argue that phone numbers have important information. In the United States, phone numbers are made up of a three-digit area code, followed by a three-digit central office number, followed by a four-digit station number. The area code tells you not only what state the phone number resides in, but also the part of the state. The central office number maps to a city. So in a sense, you have a ton of geographic information encoded into the phone number that makes it possible to figure where callers are located.

Of course, cell phones changed all that. If you grew up in one state and moved to another, you might keep the same cell phone number. Then you have a Florida number while living in Kansas. The information encoded in the number is no longer relevant or useful other than as routing information.

These days, I know four phone numbers by heart: my parents’ number, my home phone, my cell phone, and my mom’s cell phone. Dad’s cell phone loses out, and my brother? Not a clue. And I’m okay with that because I know that I don’t actually need that information in my brain. In fact, most smartphones today don’t show you the phone number being called unless there’s no name associated with it.

And yet, people rarely freak out when they can’t see the phone number of the person they’re talking to. Why? Because this routing information isn’t necessary to the experience.

If you want to share someone’s number, then you might actually look it up and repeat it to someone else. Or you might just share the contact using your phone. Either way, the sharing experience is pretty easy before the phone number resorts to routing information in someone else’s phone.

Goodbye URLs

And so we come back to the humble URL. What most geeks seems to miss is that non-geeks rarely use full URLs outside of sharing. URLs act, essentially, like phone numbers. People don’t need to know that they exist at all in most cases. I learned this by watching my dad use the web one day many years ago. I instructed him to go to boston.com, at which point he opened up his browser (which defaulted to Yahoo as its search engine) and typed “boston.com” into the search box. A light bulb went off in my head: he doesn’t distinguish between domain names, URLs, and search terms. To him they are all the same, just stuff you type into a box to get to see what you want.

These days, dad is a lot more savvy, but he still doesn’t use URLs. Anytime he goes to a site that he wants to remember, he creates a bookmark for it. Then, the next time he wants to view the site, he opens up his bookmarks and clicks the title of the thing he wants. Yes, it would be faster for him to type “boston.com” when he wants to go there, but that’s not the way he thinks about it. He wants to think about the thing to read and not where it’s located. The URL is just routing information to get the information. I encourage you to watch your non-geeky friends or family members use the web for a while.

Remember, most of civilization is made up of non-geeks who just want to find the stuff they want and get on with their lives. They don’t care if they get there by URL, by clicking a link, by search, or by using a bookmark. Whatever is easiest for them will work.

The one spot where URLs get most of their face time is in sharing, and even that continues to change. There are so many ways people share links these days. Facebook doesn’t show the URL in shared snippets. Twitter obscures the URL. News articles have Share and Like buttons everywhere. iOS has a share button that copies the URL to the clipboard without you seeing the URL first. URLs have been on the way out for a while.

Most end-users don’t understand URLs any more than they understand phone numbers. It’s a bunch of characters that refer to something. Why does it have this particular format? Who cares! It means nothing to most of the world.

Conclusion

Is Google trying to eliminate URLs from the web? Of course not. URLs are just as important to the web as phone numbers are to the worldwide telephone system. What they’re trying to do is to relegate URLs to the same level as protocols, phone numbers, and email addresses, which is encoded routing information that most people will rarely use in its raw form. If you really want it, it’s there behind a click. You might even consider that an “advanced” use case targeted at geeks.

I would go so far as to say hiding the URL most of the time is the next logical step in the consumerization of the web. We’ve already started down the path of hiding implementation details from end users, and that’s a good thing because the web is for everyone. You shouldn’t need to understand what a URL is or how it works in order to use it.

Who knows, at some point in the future, we might all look back and laugh at how silly it was to need to know things like email addresses and URLs at all.

  1. Improving the URL bar by Jake Archibald (jakearchibald.com).

Comments

  1. mtbink.com

    After comparing URL to phone number and email address, I think I agree with you now.

  2. Jakub Narebski

    Well crafted URLs work as always visible "breadcrumbs". Badly crafted URLs are better hidden.

    But I'd rather have a standarized UX for clearing URL field rather than have only domain name visible and the rest left for "Search Google or type URL" field.

  3. Roman

    Unless I missed a point somewhere, one major difference between phone numbers, emails & URLs is that it makes sense (sometimes) to edit URLs. You hardly ever edit a phone number or an email adress, it's one shot one result. On the other hand, it's more probable that you'll want to edit URLs for navigation.
    For sure, it's an expertish-user feature (or for adventurous people) but it's a feature, part of the learning curve that makes you get more out of technology. Not everybody will get there, but that's no reason to get rid of it.
    The web is all about discovering and access, I feel it'd be a loss to get rid of that way to explore it.

  4. Wes Johnston

    "What most geeks seems to miss is that non-geeks rarely use full URLs."

    You don't have any data for this I'm guessing. I'm guessing that because I've seen data that suggests lots of non-geeks do use urls, and they use them frequently. If they're crafted in a non-awful way, they use them even more frequently. They use them to send links to friends. They use them to share on facebook,. They less rarely type them to get where they want (BUT THEY DO SOMETIMES! YouTube for instance, made sure their newer channel pages have parseable urls just for this reason). And they actually understand them a whole lot more than geeks want to pretend.

    I don't mind having this debate, but like most of the internet, its full of people claiming their own anecdotal notes and opinions as facts, and that drives me nuts.

  5. Nicholas C. Zakas

    @Roman - definitely an advanced use case. Again, the URL is still there for people who want to do that, it's just a bit out of the way.

  6. Nicholas C. Zakas

    @Wes you're correct, this is from my experience. I have a lot of nontechnical friends and family from around the country, so I feel like I have a pretty good handle on this situation. I'd also like to point out that using URLs doesn't necessarily mean they understand what they are. I'd love it if you could share the research you mention.

  7. Amy Hoy

    Sorry if this is truly a duplicate, your blog isn't telling me that it's moderating, just not showing up.

    Your dad knows what boston.com is, he has been tricked into typing it into the wrong space. This is exactly why Google et al should have their feet held to the fire over further attempting to hide the workings of the internet from people. Every time a low-literacy user types "target.com" into the Google box in their browser homepage, Google has the opportunity to charge Target for an ad in order to place as the top search result.

    This is bad behavior. It's taking advantage of both the end user and the company.

    That's why it's wrong.

    Your argument is essentially, "People who know nothing of nutrition eat Doritos all day. Vegetables are dead." Nope. Doesn't fly. Current behavior does not and should not dictate declaring things 'dead.' Behavior can and should change. Nobody should be allowed to break the web based on an argument as poor as "ignorant people live on Hot Pockets" arguments.

  8. Philip Tellis

    Next up, we get rid of names and everyone becomes "The guy from the place with the thing".

  9. Jakub Narebski

    Allen Pike in Burying the URL is against this experiment, mainly (from what I read of it) because it would most probably read to "single URL" web apps, where subpages are no longer addressable by separate URLs.

  10. Nicholas C. Zakas

    @Amy - your argument sounds very similar to "only people who can drive manual transmission cars should be allowed to drive." Why should anyone be forced to understand the implementation details to use something? Who are we to tell people that they are "doing it wrong" when they are completing their task? I'm a big believer that products must adapt to their users moreso than the other way around.

  11. Takeshi Young

    Great points. How many people knew the URL of this post was http://www.nczonline.net/bl... Likely not even the author has memorized that.

  12. spencer

    Domain names are just there to obscure IP addresses for the machines you're hitting on the web. It's only logical to follow that all the way through and make the domains as simple as possible, since that is their point.

  13. Nicholas C. Zakas

    @Jakub - that is based on the theory that people actually care about seeing the URL change. I think that the proliferation of single page apps has mostly proven that people don't care. If the only reason we create URLs is because someone will see them, rather than to represent atomic and addressable application state, then we might as well stop creating them.

  14. Jakub Narebski

    @Nicholas - I would say that people create single page / single URL apps because they do not know better, and because it is extra effort to ensure that subpages get separate URLs. I think people care that subpages in sigle page / single URI apps are not bookmarkable, and that back button might be broken.

    Removing full URI would only enforce this bad habit.

    But that is just my opinion.

  15. Nik Sumeiko

    I agree that hiding URLs is next logical step after hidden phone numbers, almost unnoticeable email addresses.
    As I remember, it's quite a long time already since web browsers merged URL address bar with search boxes making it very comfortable for people to navigate: type website address and go, or type keywords and get search results with titles, descriptions in your favourite (or default) search engine.
    Basically, the URL itself doesn't give users a truly valuable information comparing to the resource title and a short description. For example, if you search Google for "URLs are already dead" query (https://google.at/search?q=... you will get a very promising rich snippets with resource title, description, some even are going to have author name, face and resource publishing date. This is what matter for people first, these are user experience. Not the URL of the resource itself, but the information that makes users feel empowered enough understanding from a first look what is the resource about.

  16. HU

    I see your point and it's a good one. I will be on eof the people clicking onto the domain name quite often to reveal the URL but for most people it probably makes a lot of sense to just hide it. For us developers this means that we need to take mor control over our domains especially the home pages of our domains. These are the addresses that people will know and nothing else (but it is this way already, isn't it?).

    One thing missing in your post though is the extinction of www. Lots of pages still use it as a URL prefix although it's completely obsolete by now. But lots of people still type www in front of every page they open. I see that every day. Even nczonline.net still uses it.

  17. Andy Edinborough

    "Internet Explorer 11 uses green and a lock icon to show when you’re using HTTPS rather than showing the protocol itself. I expect other browsers to follow suit soon."

    Do you realize that your own screenshot of IE shows the protocol? ;] And it is only green for EV SSL certificates. For instance, https://www.google.com is not green.

  18. Nicholas C. Zakas

    @Jakub - I have a hard time agreeing with that. The presence of the URL in the addressbar certainly hasn't been a deterrent to this point, so I don't buy that hiding the URL would be a reinforcing action. To me, keeping the back button working is the reason people will continue to use URLs. I also believe that poor craftsmanship will always exist no matter what we do, but that shouldn't stop progress.

  19. Nicholas C. Zakas

    @andy -yes, thanks, I've fixed that. Too much editing, copy/pasting before hitting "post" :)

  20. Ben

    Funny how we've managed to go full circle back to the AOL / Compuserve model of content.

  21. Kris G

    We aren't doing away with urls, just using them at a higher level of abstraction. Remember that urls are just a human friendly way of referencing the ip address of a particular machine, the directory of the info we wanted to see and the port of the software we wanted to deliver this info to us. It ultimately boils down to this, there are just more look-ups required along the way.

  22. ??????????

    Disabling Urls is terrible idea. It is the worst usability practice. Users must have the some minimal information about urls, emails or phone numbers they have. It is not nessesary to force user to do one more click to observe the url. It is better to see url without additional action.

  23. David

    URLs are essential for security. As are phone numbers and (in a lesser way) emails addresses.

    But comparing them to phone n# makes sense :
    Show it only when it's not in your bookmarks. Like a phone number is only shown when it's not in my contacts list.

    Then, it's bookmarking that becomes sensitive.

  24. 101

    I don't think that URL and phone number work the same. You can use URL to get upper on site. For example:
    You google a picture and it has a URL like www.example.com/photos/may/...
    Just deleting "/1.jpg" i can get to gallery of pictures.

  25. Nicholas C. Zakas

    @101 - developers do that, normal users don't. To normal users, a URL is just a collection of characters, a glorified unique ID.

  26. Irfan

    Although people at Google have started to hide the URLs, however, they decided not to give credit to the person who first had the design in place: Google result page on my machine in the June of 2013.

  27. Ben Amada

    I work with people who do pay attention to URLs and do remove URL characters as @101 suggests, and these people are not in any way developers. I would describe some of them as web savvy, others as web literate. The younger generation who have grown up with computers I would argue as being more aware, more web literate, more conscious of URLs than the pre-internet generation.

    There's one BIG difference between phone numbers and email address/URLs. Besides the phone number area code which gives geography information the rest of the numbers are meaningless. In contrast, email addresses and URLs contain "words" that give meaning, context. Just like the words in a domain name tell you something, the words in the URL path can often give you a lot of information.

    Take the URL to this blog entry as an example, the path: /blog/2014/05/06/urls-are-already-dead/ This tells me 3 things. #1 it tells me this is a blog, #2 it gives me a blog date, and #3 it tells me the title, what it's about. Email addresses often give information too. If it's not an email service/ISP, it tells me what organization the person is with, and you can often navigate to the domain name in a browser to pull up their website.

    Not all URLs contain contextual information. Some contain a mixture of useful contextual information and unimportant, characters used by the web server/app. The majority of URLs do contain at least some if not a lot of contextual information that will be sadly missed if hiding the URL path becomes the norm. This is a case where I think IE for once has a useful feature where they use a lighter gray font for the non-hostname portion of the URL in the address bar, so the actual hostname stands out, but you can still see the entire URL.

  28. Nicholas C. Zakas

    @Ben - As I've stated before, URLs won't be removed, they will just be hidden. If you or anyone else wants to edit them, you can still do that. Also, just because URLs may convey contextual information doesn't mean that they need to. If you can get the same information in a page title, then the information in a URL becomes redundant. Looking at URLs for sites like Medium, you already see this. The content is important, not so much the address of the content. It's similar to a magazine: if you're looking for something, the page number is important, but once you've found it, the page number isn't all that useful anymore.

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