From the earliest days of the Web to the present, there’s been a fundamental split between people who get the value of “human-readable URLs” and people who don’t. A human-readable URL is a Web address that tells you a lot of useful information about the page it represents. For instance, Salon URLs always tell you the date an article was posted, the section of the site the article appeared in, and a few words describing the subject matter of the article. By comparison, the typical URL at, say, CNET, looks like this: http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-10895_7-6782817-1.html. It is, essentially, human-unreadable.
In the old days, writers and editors who actually knew and used HTML always appreciated a good human-readable URL; and typically, for the ugly gibberish URLs, we had to thank (some) software architects and (some) publication managers who’d never hand-coded a link themselves. At Salon, we editors knew we’d be typing (and proofing) a zillion of those URLs ourselves; we insisted on something we could work with. (Our developers “got it” too.)
The cause of human-readable URLs got a great shot in the arm when sites began trying to optimize themselves for Google, because Google gives a little extra weight to text hints in URLs. So a lot of sites (like the New York Times) that had a history of human-unfriendly page addresses began to do better.
Today, though, we’re taking a step backwards, or at least sideways, in the cause of human readability, thanks to the growing popularity of the “tinyurl.”
When the tinyurl first crossed my radar I understood it to be a convenient way to tame unmanageably long Web addresses. (The Tinyurl site focuses in particular on how long Web addresses break in email messages.)
That’s all fine. But the tinyurl giveth and the tinyurl taketh away. When you encode a Web address as a tinyurl you’re hiding its target. Normally, when I read an article on the Web that has a link, I’ll hover my cursor over the link to see where it points. Even on a site with human-unfriendly URLs like CNETs, at least I can see that the link points to CNET.
With a tinyurl, I know nothing about the link except what the author chose to say about it. I can’t tell if it’s a reference to an article I’ve already read. If I want to find out, I have no choice but to click.
My sense is that tinyurls have grown in popularity with the rise of Twitter (where the strict character limit of messages means you don’t want to fill up a whole message with an URL), as well as the growing use of mobile devices for Web-posting activities. These are perfectly understandable reasons. But still, each time I see a tinyurl I think, there goes another tiny piece of the Web’s transparency.
[tags]tinyurl, urls, human-readable urls, web usability[/tags]
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