Some quick thoughts on URLs

This past week, there’s been a kerfuffle about an experiment within Google’s Chrome browser which hides URLs from the user. Lots of good folk have chipped in (three posts there, to give you an overview), which is good, but here’s a few thoughts before I forget to write this at all:

– As with any design decision, this has good and bad points. The discussion needs to be level-headed and focus in on the issues that the decision is trying to solve, and work out, clearly, what those issues are, and whether there are better ways of solving them.

– For instance, this has been described as (and I’m paraphrasing here) ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a nut’. That may well be true. What’s important, I think, is to have a public, open space where someone can say ‘hey, this is an issue in all modern browsers, let’s discuss how we might solve this’ – rather than announcing that some internal team has made a design decision and haven’t (as yet) explained their rationale. Again, this last point is key – show your working, explain your thinking. If you don’t, someone else will try to join the dots for you.

– The security faults and general ‘WTF’ of URLs to the ‘average’ user is such an issue. But I’m not convinced this is necessarily the best way to improve it. I might well be wrong, but let’s discuss it.

– Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s first browser didn’t show URLs. URLs were never designed to be seen by the user. Indeed, being visible leads to one of the most unfortunate side effects – people feel they have to be human readable. Now, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be human readable, but it’s more that people often prioritise that aspect over, in my opinion, their key feature – they should be permanent and unique. Human readability is the next step after that (as is a clear, logical rationale, that makes them hackable).

– URL design, however, is, in my experience, a very sadly neglected art, with key principles, hard decisions and a profound impact on the user experience (if you read one article from this post, make it that one). Hiding the URLs, I agree, could easily lead to less effort being spent on crafting them well. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were. On the other hand, as above, it could take them out of the spotlight and therefore more easily kept in the hands of those who care about getting these things right.

– Equally, talk of ‘the death of the Web’ can be mis-interpreted, very easily, to have the same effect – those who don’t follow this stuff closely will thus assume that they don’t need to care about such things, and it all goes to hell. Basically, drama can multiply the negative effect, as well as drawing attention to the potential damage being caused.

– Whilst I don’t think there’s necessarily a sinister motive behind the experiment, I do agree with ntlk that this kind of thing could easily play into the hands of entrenched, powerful players – sleepwalking into an I intended consequence – and we shouldn’t let that happen without a fight.

– I dearly hope that the idea of the sustainable Web comes to fruition – as Dan Hon says, “One that is kind of adjacent to the indie web, but that builds long-lasting, reliable services, not ones that disappear”. I hope this happens in the industry. Because then we might finally start taking URL design, and hey, maybe a site architecture that is a Web, rather than a hierarchical file directory, seriously as a topic, both in terms of development and UX.

Update One: As expected/hoped for, Michael Smethurst has written something more precise on the topic – go read that.

Update Two: Please don’t get me started on these really, really stupid vanity TLDs like .london and so on. They are pretty much pointless, for people wanting to be duped into paying money for the latest fad. Sorry. It makes me angry. But hey, if it’s ‘seen to be important’, why not go ahead and buy a .HORSE domain name?

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