Intro, Part 1a: The Unsung URL

NOTE: To see why this is labeled “Part 1a” see [1].

Although many people view the URL to be a rather obscure little creature, the URL is the arguably the most important of the web’s three essential legs; the “First Consul” of the triumvirate of web technologies; the truly unsung hero of the web.

When Tim Berners-Lee originally designed the Web, he did so by creating three core independently-specified yet inter-related technologies on top of the existing TCP/IP-based Internet. Used together, those three technologies leveraged each other to create spectacular value for the world.

The first of those three technologies, HTML, has been broadly appreciated by web developers and even lately a tremendous number of end-users for allowing them to layout text and graphics how they prefer them to be display[2]. The second, HTTP, is intimately familiar to most web users, but only as the prefix they see in countless television ads, on business cards and billboards[3], and in their web browser’s URL field as they use hypertext to navigate the web.

But whereas both HTML and HTTP are independent of the other, both rely heavily on the URL. Without the URL, HTML would have no Hypertext and HTTP could neither retrieve documents[4] from websites nor issue redirects when documents move. Berners-Lee even “canonized” the URL[5] in his 1999 Wired Interview:

“Well, the most important thing that was new was the idea of URI — or URL [it was UDI back then, universal document identifier]. The idea that any piece of information anywhere should have an identifier, which will not only identify it, but allow you to get hold of it. That idea was the basic clue to the universality of the Web. That was the only thing I insisted upon.”

But like the man behind the curtain to whom we are told to pay no attention in the Wizard of Oz, many web technologists have mistakenly promoted the notion that the URL should only be used for behind-the-scenes plumbing and thus hidden from view. Sadly, these technologists rationalize their stand by stating that mere-mortals couldn’t possibly understand URLs anyway, but nothing could be further from the truth. For this reason and more, URLs true potential has gone unfulfilled as they have been woefully under-appreciated in comparison to the power and benefits they can provide both the average web user and the web at large.

The URL, a.k.a. the URI, is more than just some behind-the-scenes, don’t-speak-until-spoken to technology. URLs provide a means to identify both concepts and tangible things and then allow related documents to be retrieved that can provide more information and/or further reference URLs. While most people think in terms of how they personally use URLs, they rarely envision the orders of magnitude of serendipitous uses by others of the URLs they assign and then publish.

It’s often said that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, but unfortunately this lack of understanding the power of the URL creates huge missed opportunity for most people. Just one simple example should illustrate this and that is the value of Google’s search engine indexer; without URLs there is no chance Google will send anyone to learn more about a concept or tangible thing that could have been made accessible by URL but wasn’t. Seeing how much money Google makes from advertisers seeking traffic to their website, it’s amazing that more people don’t realize the value of the indexable URL. But Google’s use of URLs is the mere tip of the iceberg when compared to all the serendipitous use one can receive by assigning and publishing Well Designed URLs for everything they view should be notable to others.

Tim Berners-Lee has been quoted as saying “Everything of importance deserves a URL[6] and it is our opinion that is probably his most profound statement ever. So one of the key goals of the Well Designed URLs Initiative is to right the wrong of past technologists who have been hiding URLs from the average user’s view. By elevating URL’s the significance in the minds of both Internet professionals and the masses we hope to be the catalyst for the positive change that the recognition of URL’s value will bring.

  1. This part of our introduction was published out of order hence it’s designation as “1a” instead of as “2.” During the process of writing it became clear that this needed to be said but unfortunately we had already published numerous posts that would have obviously come after this one. Ah well, that’s what happens when you start publishing before you finalize the outline. :-)
  2. Graphic designers would argue this point, but that would be nit picking for the purposes of this blog post.
  3. Albeit the trend is toward omitting and hence assuming the “http” written and spoken communication.
  4. The Weborati would correct me and say that HTTP retrieves “resources“, but why quibble over common use when this post is non-normative?
  5. My use of the term “canonized” is obviously just a bit of “dramatic license.”
  6. Actually Tim uses URI instead of URL which is his preference vs. mine. Go here to read about URL vs. URI here.
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