Apple has begun to hide urls in Safari for iOS and OS X Yosemite. This decision met with consternation from the kind of people who notice these things, which is to say the kind of people most likely to be concerned with URLs as something users pay attention to. These people, though, don’t represent the normal user, if indeed such a user exists. Instead, they represent what we can maybe call the enthusiast. The enthusiast learns how to use their devices, maybe reads blogs about consumer technology, and generally feels pretty sure that they know what they’re doing. (Cf. Michael Chabon “knows macs”.) For the enthusiast, their perceived mastery of consumer technology provides some level of identity: they can help their elders set up their accounts, or use all those amazing new features. But for the enthusiast, because their identity is so wrapped up in using technology, the loss of features can feel a bit like an affront. So it is with the URL.
The URL isn’t a feature per se, but users have strong attachments to them. For many, the URL announced the Internet’s move into the public consciousness, as billboards and magazine ads began to carry display urls in the ’90s.1 The URL gave a name to the businesses that sprung up in this era–newspapers wrote it “dot-com”–though the term fell out of favor following the bubble’s burst.
But we’re not really talking here about URLs in general. Instead, we’re talking about one very specific use case: consumer-facing URLs, intended to identify web pages. And, yes, the days of URLs as part of the interface that users of a web browser are expected to work with may indeed be numbered, and it’s not just Apple. Consider also Twitter’s substitution of t.co URLs for all URLs shared on the service, or how Facebook can hide the URL while maintaining the destination of the link. In the case of social sharing, users may never even see the URLs they’re sharing if they use social sharing buttons built into the interface of a digital property. There’s a reason that platforms built for social tend to get the most shares.
But URLs are only growing more important. It’s web pages that are fading.
Web applications have, for some time now, challenged the notion of a web page as a stable unit of content. My Facebook news feed looks different from yours, and nobody seems to think that’s strange. In such cases, the URL we use to access Facebook (when we’re even using the web client and not a mobile app) doesn’t correspond to the content one finds there, it corresponds to the application containing that content. Welcome to the post-page era.
The post-page era is characterized by a new kind of URL. These URLs don’t just point to a location. Instead, they’re part reference, part query string, part identification. They’re both more important to a user’s experience, and less scrutable to most users. Apple is right to hide hide them. An end-user probably doesn’t want to see a full url when it looks like this:
Even when URLs aren’t quite so overwhelming and the content they’re pointing to is a bit more stable, they’ve begun to morph. UTM parameters and social campaign management software have led to urls carrying much more than a location. We now have things like this:
These URLS are contain data that end users don’t care about. Users probably don’t care whether the URL that they’re following to a NY Times story was posted by the official NY Times Twitter account, or the actual Latlng coordinates of a location in Google Maps. But in both cases, those represent important data: the Times wants to measure the effectiveness of their social campaigns, and Google needs a way to know what map to display.
Beyond web applications, URLs have also grown in importance. We’ve recently seen the standardization for app links, which allow individual apps to deep link to each other. Click link to a Tumblr in Safari IOs? You’ll be prompted to open it in the Tumblr app (if you’ve got it installed). From a user perspective, it can be great. The native app versions of a number of platforms are far superior to the web versions, at least when viewed on a mobile browser. Further, for users of those platforms, the possibility to view something within the app, and with all the attending functionality, is pretty exciting.
When people get concerned about a browser hiding part of a URL, what they’re concerned about isn’t the loss of the URL, it’s the loss of a way to understand the web.2 And that loss is real, but it’s a necessary one, if the internet is ever to offer more than a series of linked brochures.