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4 technologies that are killing the URL

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The lonely web address

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.

 

Comments

Joe Barber
Joe Barber August 20, 2009 at 9:19 AM

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".

Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman August 14, 2009 at 11:38 AM

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.

Vincent Amari
Vincent Amari August 12, 2009 at 12:06 PM

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:
http://searchengineland.com/googles-matt-cutts-on-keywords-in-the-url-16976

Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman July 28, 2009 at 12:32 PM

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.

Eli E. Cohen
Eli E. Cohen July 28, 2009 at 12:09 PM

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

luis fer mtz funes
luis fer mtz funes July 28, 2009 at 10:38 AM

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.

Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman July 28, 2009 at 10:27 AM

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

Paul Nealy
Paul Nealy July 28, 2009 at 5:32 AM

Jonathan,

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).
.

Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman July 27, 2009 at 2:36 PM

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.

Dennis Brennan
Dennis Brennan July 27, 2009 at 2:31 PM

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?

Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman July 27, 2009 at 1:10 PM

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).

Jonathan

Kym Romanets
Kym Romanets July 27, 2009 at 12:57 PM

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.

Rolando Peralta
Rolando Peralta July 27, 2009 at 12:44 PM

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/

Guillermo Corea
Guillermo Corea July 27, 2009 at 10:31 AM

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.

Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman July 27, 2009 at 9:42 AM

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.

Jonathan

Jose Rodrigues
Jose Rodrigues July 27, 2009 at 9:34 AM

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

Lisa Thorell
Lisa Thorell July 27, 2009 at 9:33 AM

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...

Eli E. Cohen
Eli E. Cohen July 27, 2009 at 9:23 AM

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!

Maurice Flynn
Maurice Flynn July 27, 2009 at 9:21 AM

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. :)