WHAT IS A URL, AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
WHAT IS A URL, AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Most people are familiar with the term “URL.” However, unless you are surveying a bunch of Google employees, few could probably tell you what each letter stands for, and what it actually means.
But if you use the internet with any regularity, it could be helpful to gain a better understanding of the term and its importance.
Start With a Definition
The term “URL” is an abbreviation for Uniform Resource Locator.
Which does nothing to help anyone understand what it actually means.
Basically, a URL is the address for a website (the “web address”), page, or file on the internet. Anything that can be stored digitally can be given a URL. For example, the URL for this website is https://www.thewritersforhire.com.
A URL is made up of three distinct parts:
- The protocol
- The domain name
- The path
The following breaks down and explains these main components of a URL.
Also called the scheme, this is the very beginning of a URL. The most common protocols used are http:// or https://. The letters stand for hypertext transfer protocol; the “s” stands for “secure.”
The protocol is extremely important. It tells your browser how to communicate with a website’s server to send and retrieve information.
Unless you are interested in the minutiae of how data travels from one location to another, diving into the technical details about how the protocol works is really not necessary.
The Domain Name
The section immediately following the protocol is the domain name. It is usually the name of a website, such as “google.com” or “thewritersforhire.com.”
When someone decides to set up a website, it is up to them to choose the domain name. It is a good idea to choose a name that is easy to type, remember, and relates to the purpose of the website.
The last part of the domain name, such as “.com” is the domain suffix, or top level domain. While .com is the most commonly used, there are over 500 domain suffixes available. The most common ones are:
Many domain names used to begin with “www.” This was an abbreviation of the World Wide Web. It is usually not necessary to type in the www as you will be directed to the correct domain without it.
The file path (often shortened to “the path”) directs the browser to a specific page associated with the domain. If no path is specified, the browser will take you to a default page, such as a home page. For example, https://www.thewritersforhire.com/blog/ will take you to the main blog page of The Writers for Hire website.
The Parameter Stream and Anchor
Following the path, a URL can contain many more words, symbols, and numbers. These are often the parameter and anchor.
The parameter usually contains the “&” symbol and the anchor usually contains the “#” symbol. Both parts generally provide more specificity about where the browser should take a user.
One simple way to think of all these parts of a URL is to put it in terms of a mailing address.
- The protocol is the delivery service
- The domain name is the city
- The path is the building
- The parameters indicate the apartment
- The anchor represents the person receiving delivery
How to Get a URL
If you are interested in creating a website, you will need to get a URL. The part that you need to focus on in this case is the domain name. You have control over what to name your website, and it will form the core of your URL.
In order to own a domain name, you will need to purchase it from a domain registrar (often referred to as “registering your domain”). There are many options available to do this. Prices may vary, and you should do your research to make sure you are buying from a reputable source before making a purchase.
You can check to see if the domain registrar is accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Registrars must meet certain criteria to be accredited. However, it’s probably best to do further research to make sure the domain registrar you use also offers good technical support and has many satisfied customers.
Most web hosting services will also offer to sell you a domain name as part of your web hosting package. Some will even give you a domain name for free for the first year. Just be aware that you will likely be charged for your domain name when the promotion is up.
How Does a URL Work
Destinations on the internet are actually identified by a series of numbers. These are called IP Addresses (Internet Protocol Address). They consist of 12 numbers separated into groups of three by a period, like this: 220.127.116.11.
It is possible to arrive at an internet destination by typing in the IP address. But imagine trying to remember a series of 12 numbers every time you wanted to visit a website. You might memorize a handful that you visit frequently, but it’s a terribly impractical system.
Instead, domain names with words are used. When a URL is entered into a browser, it is then translated into an IP address by something called a Domain Name Server (DNS). So the browser is using the string of numbers to bring you to your desired destination. The DNS just makes the job a lot easier for us to do.
It is important to understand the difference between http:// and https://. Previously, http:// was in widespread use. More recently, there has been a move toward using https:// because it is a much more secure option. The “s” indicates that any data sent back and forth is encrypted before being transmitted. Encrypted data is converted in such a way as to make it safe from interception by hackers.
It is easy to tell if a website uses a secure protocol. In addition to the “s,” there will also be a padlock icon shown on the far left of the website address.
How to Design a Good URL
If you need to create a website, choosing the right URL is important. You should first just focus on the domain name and top-level domain, or suffix, when making your choice.
Keep it Simple
Short, easy-to-remember domain names are best, but many of the best names have already been taken. Still, the closest you can get to meeting these two requirements, the better.
It is not necessary to keep your domain name to one word. Simple phrases, as long as they are easy to remember, work fine. Thewritersforhire.com consists of four words, but it is easy to type, and each word is fairly short.
Try to match your domain name to the subject of your website. Again, thewritersforhire.com serves as a good example. Anyone seeing this URL will have a pretty good idea of what to expect when they land on the website. Conversely, cryptic names or ones that provide no clues about the website are harder to remember and can cause visitors to become confused.
Try to avoid the use of symbols. If you must use a separator, a hyphen (-) is better than an underscore (_), largely because typing a hyphen doesn’t require using the shift key.
Using the .com Extension
Sometimes the domain name you wish to use is not available. In order to find out, you can simply type in the name you are hoping to purchase, such as domainname.com. The registrar will be able to immediately indicate if that name is available.
If it isn’t (and this happens fairly often), the registrar will usually offer some alternative suggestions. Often the suggestions will be the same core name with a different top-level domain, such as .net, .biz, or .co.
It is a good idea to think carefully about whether or not to use a different suffix other than .com. Obviously, .com is the most commonly used, unless it is for a specific type of organization, such as a government agency (.gov) or educational entity (.edu).
Most people will assume your domain name uses the .com extension. So, if you want to name your website mywebsite.com, but it is already taken, you could instead purchase mywebsite.biz. The risk is that when someone wants to go to your website, they may not remember yours uses the .biz extension, and instead end up at your competitor’s site with the .com extension.
You can try modifying your first choice by adding a descriptor and seeing if that is available. For example, if you are an author and want to use your name for your website, you might run into trouble if your name is somewhat common. For example, there is a pretty good chance that JaneSmith.com is already taken. In this case, you could try adding your middle name, such as JaneAnnSmith.com. Or you could add a descriptor, such as JaneSmithWriter.com.
Why It’s Important to Understand URLs
This post has kept the discussion of URLs to the basic concepts that would be most useful to anyone seeking a casual overview of the subject. Diving deeper into the topic would require a more sophisticated understanding of the inner workings of the internet, and is not really necessary for the average person.
But URLs are one of the most important foundational pieces of the internet. Taking the time to understand how URLs work, and how carefully designing one for your website is important, will allow you to make more informed decisions when it comes to your own website or business.
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