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4 technologies that are killing the URL

4 technologies that are killing the URL Jonathan Richman

Recently, I was involved in a few presentations and had a conversation with a colleague that got me thinking about the future of the URL (i.e., uniform resource locator -- in other words, a web address). All of my ponderings led me to one conclusion: What we have come to recognize as the primary means of getting to a website -- http://www.YourBrandHere.com -- is used less now than last year and isn't going to be used much in the future. The significance of this revelation led me to consider the methods with which we promote our web properties -- and whether we as digital marketers are ready for this shifting reality.

First, what am I talking about? In short, the URL is the way that most people think others find their pages online. It's what we see in ads, it's what we put on our business cards, and it's what we promote right down to the "www." However, more often than not, your customers may not be using your URL to find you. Yes, that URL that you've spent so much time and money promoting -- or that you spent a fortune to secure -- might not be that important.

There are several different technologies, all currently converging, that are contributing to the growing obsolescence of URLs. Here's a look at the most important ones, as well as the implications for marketers.

Eighty percent of all online sessions begin with search. Google alone has a 63.7 percent share of all searches. Some quick math tells me that this means that just over half of the time someone starts an online session, they open to Google and begin to search. Bottom line: Most of the time people go online, they start with a search -- and don't type in your URL.

Instead of typing in your URL and ending up on your site, people are using search engines to find what they are looking for. The question is: Will they find you? You might not like the answer.

It turns out that the top three listings on a search engine results page account for approximately 63 percent of all clicks. That is, about two-thirds of the time, people look no further than the first three listings before clicking. So, clearly that's the place to be.

Furthermore, you've got to be in the top two in order to really be seen. The No. 3 result gets only an 8.44 percent click-through rate compared to a 42.3 percent click-through rate for the No. 1 listing. After No. 3, the numbers drop even more dramatically. Result No. 11, the first result on page two of your search results, has a click-through rate of 0.66 percent. The click-through then drops as follows:

  • No. 21 (top of page 3): 0.29 percent

  • No. 31 (top of page 4): 0.12 percent

  • No. 41 (top of page 5): 0.07 percent

I think you get the point. If you're off the first page, you pretty much don't exist.

When it comes to key search terms, many marketers are failing to secure a top position. With people using search engines first when they go online, a solid and thorough search marketing strategy (including paid and organic) is proving even more important for today's marketers than securing that coveted URL.

The latest versions of web browsers are making it even simpler to circumvent URLs. Google's Chrome moved this along rapidly by creating a single "Omnibox" that allows you to either type in a URL or simply a search term. You don't need to go to Google.com to search -- just type your search term right where you would normally type the address. You are then taken to Google's search results. Similar functionality exists in Firefox and Internet Explorer, which actually may jump you directly to the most relevant search result instead of first directing you to Google.com. Regardless, no URL is required.

What's true for search engines is true for browsers here as well. The fact that browsers enable consumers to tap into search engine results is just one more reason to make sure that your search strategy is sound.

In certain cases, the browser may skip the Google search results page and drop you right on the page it feels is most appropriate (i.e., the first search result). It's basically the equivalent of the "I'm feeling lucky" button on Google. In this regard, marketers may want to pinpoint a term that users can type into their browser address bars that will take them directly to the brand's page without stopping at a search result page. Once you pinpoint such a term, you can tell people to simply type that phrase into their browsers instead of only providing your web address. We've seen this tactic used in the past, when many companies gave out a URL as well as an AOL keyword in their advertising. However, it can be difficult to find these terms, and different browser versions make this strategy a bit unreliable. However, it's worth starting to do the work now to own key terms so that when browser re-directs become more consistent and widely used, you will be ready.

Twitter's limitation of 140 characters makes it pretty hard to tweet a really long URL, especially for those that direct to pages buried deep within a site. As a result, a number of URL shortening services have popped up that can shrink your almost infinitely long URL down to a handful of characters. Twitter uses bit.ly for this, which let's you take a URL like this -- http://www.doseofdigital.com/healthcare-pharma-social-media-wiki/ -- and shrink it down to this: http://bit.ly/11dBiH.

While such URL shortening services make it easier for you to tweet links, they also eliminate your brand's URL, negating all the branding that you spent so much time and money promoting.

Many companies have already started using Twitter to send out tweets promoting their brands. If you want people tweeting about your products and still want to include some branding in your URLs, it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

Instead of sharing a giant URL with followers, create a short URL in cases where you'd like them to tweet your content. The shortened URLs don't have to be random assortments of letters and numbers. You can use the shortening services to create custom URLs. So, instead of a long URL or a jumble like http://bit.ly/5Jdi, you can include your own characters after the "bit.ly/": http://bit.ly/DoDPharma. This still gives you a little control over your branding and yet acknowledges the reality that long URLs are dead.

Do you recognize the below image? If you live in the U.S., chances are that you don't. If you live in Japan, you probably do. It's a QR code. In the U.S., these are rarely used, though they are popping up here and there. In other countries, it's a different story. QR codes are used in a lot of different advertising situations.

You'll notice that there is no URL written anywhere on the image. What QR codes allow you to do is take your mobile phone, snap a photo of the code (called "tagging"), and instantly be sent to the right web address. No typing, no risk of an incorrectly entered URL -- just a camera phone and web access. Phones in the U.S. typically don't come installed with the necessary software to read these codes, but you can install it if you'd like, or download an app if you've got an iPhone.

As you may have noticed, QR codes aren't necessarily pretty. New technology is being developed so that instead of snapping a picture of a QR code, people can just snap an image of your product or logo and immediately be sent to a web address. It would work the same as a QR code, but marketers wouldn't have to print terrible-looking code onto their packaging or ads.

Regardless, though, back to the point of this article: With QR codes and similar future technologies, your branded URL does not appear.

There are a lot of ways companies can leverage this technology, especially if they are not solely in the U.S., where QR code usage is pretty low. In Western Europe and Japan, these codes are ubiquitous, making these types of campaigns pretty commonplace.

Consider that the first major brand to widely use QR codes in the U.S. is probably going to garner some additional PR for its campaign simply because of the novelty of the technology. The brand could create further buzz by adding a little mystery to the campaign. Instead of explicitly saying what the product is, you might only include a message and the QR code. People might go out of their way to figure out what the campaign was all about. For example, in the grocery aisle with the pasta sauce, a brand like Tide laundry detergent might put up a shelf ad that simply says, "In case of a spill..." Along with the text, there could be a QR code that takes people to a specific page on the Tide site that discusses how well the product works on tomato sauce stains. (This may not be the most creative idea out there, but that's off the top of my head -- and you get the picture.)

In addition, you can include QR codes on print materials for those who might want to get additional information. You can only include so much information in a printed brochure, but with a QR code, someone could "tag" the code and instantly be transported to a demonstration video or product reviews. Print is suddenly interactive once again.

New technologies are changing even the most basic pieces of the online experience, including the URL. As people continue to use URLs differently -- or circumvent them altogether -- marketers have to ensure that they are keeping up and matching their marketing with how customers are using digital technologies. Amending your URL strategy is one simple but essential way to keep up with your customers.

Jonathan Richman is director of business development for Bridge Worldwide and blogs at Dose of Digital.

On Twitter? Follow Richman at @jonmrich. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Jonathan Richman is  Vice President, Product Marketing, for Cincinnati-based startup Zipscene. Jonathan Richman is responsible for leading product development and all marketing and thought leadership efforts for Zipscene. Zipscene is a digital...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Joe Barber

2009, August 20

Johnathan - Great analysis. I think you are spot on. I also think that QR Codes are ready to explode here in the US. There are a number of factors that are converging but the most important is the move to ever more personalized 1to1 advertising and the transformation of the mobile phone into the new personal computer of choice.. Marketers are looking for better ways to enable interaction with people on these devices. The encoding of Purls in a QR Code eliminates the need to type in these long URL's and still allow consumer to be delivered to a highly relevant, highly personalized web experience. By not having to see the URL it will make people feel more comfortable by not having to see your name in the URL which screams "We're watching you".

Commenter: Jonathan Richman

2009, August 14

Yes, Vincent, search engines use the entire URL to help with rankings (to some extent anyway). So, I'm not saying that you shouldn't have a website or optimized page titles. My point is that people aren't finding using a long URL like this one: http://searchengineland.com/googles-matt-cutts-on-keywords-in-the-url-16976

No one is going to type that into their browser. They're going to shorten it or just click through a hyperlink or something in someone's profile. Very few people will ever see or use that full link.That is, you would never consider creating a promotional piece that used that super long URL. There's no way people would input it correctly into their browsers. So, people aren't doing that. They are finding ways to never really have to know the full URL of a site or page.

For a website owner, I'm not saying you should change the underlying structure of your links, but if you are going to share a link, you probably can't send this out: http://searchengineland.com/googles-matt-cutts-on-keywords-in-the-url-16976. You would need to find a way to shorten it or somehow make it easier for people to actually use.

Commenter: Vincent Amari

2009, August 12

I Don't think all the dots have been connected in this argument.
You say that search is the way people will find the site they want - fine
But why would that mean the end of the URL?
Remember that search engines also use the full URL to find and rank the relevant article/content on your site, and that keywords in the URL are important:

Commenter: Jonathan Richman

2009, July 28

Yes, Eli. This would work. There's also a few simple scripts (and plugins offered by some shortening services) that allow you to create shortened URLs using your domain as the root without having to deal with sub-domains or create additional redirect pages.

Essentially, they would let your URL go from http://www.doseofdigital.com/healthcare-pharma-social-media-wiki/ to something like http://www.doseofdigital.com/wiki

The redirect would be automatic (and 301) with the right scripting without having to create another redirect page.

Commenter: Eli E. Cohen

2009, July 28

Since I am an admirer of Jonathan, I am going to share here a secret tip of mine with you on shortening URL's in a way that has a lot of branding value.
I call it tactical subdomain redirect©.
What you do is create a subdomain with a key word of the page and redirect it to the actual URL. If i take Jonathan's example: http://www.doseofdigital.com/healthcare-pharma-social-media-wiki/ I would create a subdomain of www.wiki.doseofdigital.com (or www.health.doseofdigital.com or whatever) and redirect it to the page. No need for outside services and you reinforce your Corporate/URL brand

Commenter: luis fer mtz funes

2009, July 28

totally right about how slowly the URL dissapears. For me right now the .com and .org and such are totally useless. I still need the brand to write it in firefox but with just that firefoxdirects me to the site i need. I'm sure that we'll still need the brand to go to a site but the whole URL as you say will slowly evolve and become just a keyword, no more www. no more .com, just BBW or SectorGawed. nice. good points have not thought about them.

Commenter: Jonathan Richman

2009, July 28

Paul, Most URL shorteners (including bit.ly) actually use 301 redirects, so you actually don't lose credit for the inbound links. Search engines simply treat most shortened links and the subsequent redirect to your site as though the page permanently moved from the shortened URL to your site. Here's a rundown of which shorteners use 301 redirects: http://bit.ly/SCLCX.

If you want to see this for yourself, the article I linked to above also gives you a way to test and see how this works and what it looks like to a search engine: "Rex Swain's long-standing HTTP Viewer is an excellent tool. Enter the short URL into the URL box, untick the "Auto-Follow” box and submit. Then look to see what code is reported." Link: http://bit.ly/7G3Bn

Commenter: Paul Nealy

2009, July 28


I have always been an advocate for the importance of the URL and often have created vanity URLs directly on the site to redirect to deeper content.

One thing that is missing from your article is the impact that URL shorterners have on search. Although these short URLs do drive the visitors to the site, they are not technically inbound links to your site, but rather inbound links to bit.ly. In addition to losing inbound links, the relevancy factor of URL to content that search engines use as a ranking data point is lost.

Therefore, there is the human engagement issues related to brand interaction and the search indexing issues related to not actually linking to your own site. The solution would be to not have URL itself was not counted in the 140 characters and allow for the titling/labeling of links (that could be included in the 140).

Commenter: Jonathan Richman

2009, July 27

Dennis. Go to bit.ly and under the "Shorten" button there's a link for "Show Options." Click that. You'll see a box for "Custom Name." That's where you can put in custom the append to bit.ly. Then just paste in your long link, hit shorten, type in your custom name and then save. If the custom link is available, then you're done. Thanks for the comment.

Commenter: Dennis Brennan

2009, July 27

Great stuff, thanks Jonathan.

Quick question, how are you able to use bit.ly and use your own letters like you did to get to your blog?

Commenter: Jonathan Richman

2009, July 27

Kym, Thanks for the comment. I didn't say URLs weren't important. The point was that they are being used less and less because of a number of emerging technologies. If you're only relying on your URL to carry your brand, you're probably missing something. While naming a site "dskfjdfkajfdfadjfksa.com" as you challenged probably isn't a good idea, using a full-length URL (40-60+ characters) that refers to a deep page within a site isn't a great idea no matter how simple the first part of the URL is. I'll take bit.ly/example versus yourwebsite.com/5/14/story-about-something-important or even the URL of this post (http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/23912.asp).


Commenter: Kym Romanets

2009, July 27

None of what you say supports the conclusion URLs are no longer important.

People might find a website initially via a search or link but that is no different to finding a business by looking in the yellow pages and then phoning them or going there.

When they want to return they don't look up the phone book again. They remember the phone number or address. And when they want to recommend the business to someone they don't say "look up hardware in the phone book, it's about the 3rd entry down". They use the business name.

The online equivalent is your URL. It is valuable and will remain valuable.

If it is not then I challenge you to rename this site to

"dskfjdfkajfdfadjfksa.com" and see how you fare.

Commenter: Rolando Peralta

2009, July 27

Great article, thanks for sharing it. It's really valuable. I think Microsoft Tag has it's implications too, but It's good to know that it's attached to an URL that you can update anytime: http://www.microsoft.com/tag/

Commenter: Guillermo Corea

2009, July 27

Great article. One thing I've definitely been noticing is the proliferation of specific URLs for ad campaigns that either go to a microsite or just redirect to the main site. One of our clients is currently having a lot of success with the microsite approach.

As far as QR codes are concerned, I experimented with this technology initially a couple of years back. I was impressed back then. However, I haven't really seen any major improvements and actually had problems with it on my iPhone using ScanLife. I agree with Lisa that the visual representation of the QR codes needs to improve to catch on.

Commenter: Jonathan Richman

2009, July 27

Eli and Lisa, I agree that companies shouldn't give up on securing their brand URLs primarily for offline purposes, as you said. I think the distinction that Eli makes on image v. operations is a good way to look at it. One further thing I didn't cover in the article is the importance of securing your brand on various social media sites that allow for custom URLs. http://www.example.com/yourbrandname. A lot of squatters know about the value of these. For instance, on Twitter, http://twitter.com/pfizer isn't Pfizer at all. They're stuck with @Pfizer_news.

Jose, The click-through rates come from here: http://bit.ly/1Pkbie. This is all based on data accidentally leaked by AOL a couple years ago. Not ideal, but probably the best I've seen.

Thanks for the comments and compliments.


Commenter: Jose Rodrigues

2009, July 27

Excellent article Jonathan. Where did you get from the click-through rate?

Commenter: Lisa Thorell

2009, July 27

Sweet analysis...Agree with Eli that URL is not quite yet dead as a branding vehicle (due to offline uses) but your observations make well the point that its brand role is diminishing severely.
Perhaps the QR Code- once its displayed in some more visually iconic "retinal eye stamp" mode will offer a new replacement for the URL...intriguing...

Commenter: Eli E. Cohen

2009, July 27

Great post! However, i still think that URL's have branding importance on an image level even if on a dwindling practical/operative level. The day URL's started cropping up on print advertising was the day the internet became a media. The day the URL's disappear is the day they become irrelevant. And not a day sooner!

Commenter: Maurice Flynn

2009, July 27

very useful analysis and thinking Jonathan thankyou - everything that gets us away from the wrist exhausting, key board driven web surfing experience of today, can only be a good thing - at least for the audience. :)