Death of the Address Bar

I’m not one to make predictions, but this one has been at the back of my mind for a while and the evidence is starting to rack up. In my usual style, I shall make my point through an unnecessary number of dodgy anecdotes and opinions rather than through citations and serious research. I hope you enjoy them.

Anecdote #1 – URLs in advertising

Over the past year or so, I have noticed a trend in television advertising where the viewer is prompted to search for a phrase, rather than given a URL to remember. This week I saw a billboard (for Streetcar, a primarily web-based business) that did not display a URL at all. Obviously relying on brand recognition alone to prompt people to Google “street car“, which of course they will. And rather than their analytics showing a load of “direct hit” entries. They will have richer metrics showing how people searched and found the business.

Anecdote #2 – because it prompted me to write this post

I visited my optician yesterday to book a sight test, and was told that I could get a discount by registering online (or some such guff). These are the exact instructions I was given:

Go to the Google search¬† box in your toolbar and search for “Half price eye test <name-of-optician>”. Follow the first link and it will take you to the site where you can print off a voucher

There are two remarkable things about these instructions: Firstly, the customer is not expected to remember a URL, or even to transcribe one. Secondly, the customer is not even expected to enter the google.com URL into their address bar. I have no idea if this is the company’s official line, or if it was the guy’s first day, or if he just didn’t know the URL, but it amused me and prompted me to finally write this post.

Observation #1 – People cannot remember URLs

I watch people use the internet a lot. I stand behind people and pay attention to what they do. One thing has been very obvious to me for a number of years. People cannot remember URLs, (except the BIG ones of course,¬† like facebook.com). Why? Because they don’t want to and they don’t need to. Instead people type URLs into Google, and blindly click the top result. I know this not only because I see people do it, but also because I see a lot of web analytics reports – the top keyword searches are often the actual domain names.

Ok, so “what about bookmarks?”, you may be thinking. From my observations, people don’t use bookmarks that much either. Especially people who visit lots of different sites every day. Again I put this down to convenience. It takes as long to Google a URL as it does to find it in your bookmarks, or even find it in your drop-down address bar history.

Opinion #1 – URLs are technical; people don’t understand them.

As a developer I read URLs like plain text, but to most people (even savvy internet users) a URL like the following is just gobbledygook.
http://somone:apass@subdomain.domain.tld/path/to/something?encoded%20stuff&junk#fragment

Ok, an extreme example, but in general only something as simple as domain.com/something is really in the wider public consciousness. Phishing scams exploit this fact to great effect. MySpace taught us a lot about this, but despite raising awareness about the technique I am not sure that people know any better when they are looking at a fake URL.

Phishing scams are a separate topic, but the point is that URLs are one of the more technical and mysterious aspects of using the internet. To companies wanting to protect us from this and win over the technophobes, circumventing the URL is a pretty easy win in appearing more user-friendly.

Opinion #2 – Shortened URLs destroy the semantics of web addresses

A shortened (obfuscated) URL is even less relevant to the user than the original address. Far from being designed for the address bar, it is not even of any value as a readable string – It is as abstract and meaningless as an IP address.

URL-shorteners have been around for longer than Twitter, but Twitter has certainly created a boom in this arena. Apart from the criticism of URL shorteners that is concerned with points of failure, I might also criticise them of breaking the semantics of the URL. A URL is not only an address, but a label with a lot of information about what it contains. When a hyperlink does not display the actual URL, I look at my status bar before clicking it. Of course that’s because I’m a paranoid, control-freak developer, but with shortened URLs I have no choice anyway.

At this point I should point out that some URL-shorteners (such as bit.ly) offer custom, readable tokens in addition to the automatically generated, unique strings. However, I question whether these readable tokens are even noticed by the Twitterati, who are blinded with a thousand shortened URLs each day, and who must be the most complacent skim-readers on the planet – myself included.

Death? don’t be dramatic!

Ok, maybe not death – As long as there are URLs there will be an address bar, and as long as there is DNS there will be URLs, and so on …

However, it is clear to me that the address bar is taking more and more of a back seat in terms of common internet usage. Perhaps in IE10 it will be a configurable option, and by default new browser windows won’t include it. Why would Microsoft’s customers want to be bothered by those nasty, technical looking addresses? This is the company that invented “friendly HTTP error messages”, remember?

Who cares?

Should we care if the address bar dies out? Should we care if URLs weren’t even a visible part of using the internet?

The only people who would care would probably be developers and techie control freaks like me. I think this point of view is part of the wider paradigm that knowledge is power. The divide between those that understand the internet and those that just use it is a much deeper topic and I’m not going to go off on that tangent right now.