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URLs and Domain Names

January 25, 2015

I’ve watched the evolution of URLs and domain names from the time they were invented.  The latest versions of both of these show up in advertizing everywhere.

The URL is often called a web link or a web address.  They were invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 to fill a need apparent at the time.  Here’s an example:

http://www.example.com/this/that.html

The first part, `http’ indicates the protocol to be used.  Next comes the domain name, `www.example.com’ in this case.  The final component, `/this/that.html’, is the path to the actual web page.  There’s also punction characters within and between components.  Tim wanted a format that could describe any data object available on the Internet.  URLs could be long and complicated for some types of data objects.  He intended URLs to be descriptions used internally by web browsers, but not to be visible to people using those browsers.  In fact, he said:

I had assumed, as an absolute pre-condition, that nobody would have to do HTML or deal with URLs.

Tim expected some higher-level system to supply the URLs that were actually used by web browsers.

What part of a URL indicates a web site?  At first, it was the protocol with its punction, usually `http://’.  People soon ignored that component, since it was always there.  Next, it was the domain prefix, usually `www.’.  People assumed it was always there even as web sites began to dispense with it.  Now people have adjusted to web sites that don’t use that prefix.  What’s left?  In all of the advertizing I’ve seen lately, it’s the top-level domain, usually `.com’ that indicates a web site.  Does everybody that has a `.com’ domain operate a web site?  I suppose they do now.

Judging by advertizing and by how people talk about URLs, most people want URLs to be as simple as possible.  I do too, although I do send long ones in e-mail messages.  People can just click on those, or paste them into their browser.  The protocol and the path were the first things to disappear, leaving only the domain name.  That also eliminated most of the punctuation.  Only the dots within the domain name remained.  Those are disappearing too.

Automation is the reason for some of these changes.  Web servers can change protocols and rewrite URLs, so that your browser doesn’t have to do it.  Links on a web page can specify URLs with paths because these URLs are indeed only used internally.  Web browsers can fill in missing components, so that you only have to type in a partial URL.  They can also offer suggestions, allowing you to type even less.

The new style seems to be long domain names.  Everybody knows that they have no spaces and no punctuation.  Every product and every project seems to have a domain name in this style now.  Let’s say your new product is `The New Fuzzy Widget’.  You only have to type `thenewfuzzywidget’ into your web browser to have it show the page at `http://thenewfuzzywidget.com’.  Of course, you still have to advertize your new domain name in all the traditional ways to get people to visit your web site.

No doubt the people who sell domain names will benefit by this proliferation of names.  They’ll be happy to sell you as many as possible.  It’s like printing money or selling real estate on the moon, except of course, you pay an annual fee for a domain name.

Now there’s a new scheme for top-level domains that proposes many more of them.  Apparently, it’s not very popular among domain name customers, although it is an opportunity for sellers to sell more names.  For millions of people who use web browsers, it’s just one more thing to remember.  They’d be happier with no top-level domains at all.  They seem to be satisfied with one country code, like `.ca’ for Canada, and `.com’ for everything else.

It looks as if what Tim Berners-Lee wanted is coming true, although perhaps not in the way he envisioned it.  URLs are certainly visible to web browser users, except that they are greatly simplified.  This change is mainly a result of the new style of domain names with minimal punctuation.  The concept of one domain name per organization has disappeared.

 

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