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URLs by design

URL shortening services have been much discussed this week because TinyURL blew up. Twitter uses TinyURL to reduce URL sizes, so most of the URLs people were putting in their tweets were broken. This is bad, and if Twitter continues to gain popularity, it’ll be worse. Plus there are the larger issues of putting an intermediary (TinyURL) between users and content. If users pass around the shortened URL, and that eventually goes away, it hardly matters if the actual destination URL lives forever. It’s all inelegant.

Dave Winer has an idea to solve this problem:

Every web app that produces long urls should provide a built-in url-shortening facility. The user interface would be similar to the one in Google Maps they call “Link To This Page.” You click on it, and up pops a box containing an address you can use to point to the page.

I think that’s a good start on a solution, but more is needed. Think about Twitter — they have an automated URL shortening process. If I paste a long URL into Twitter, they go out and use TinyURL to generate a shorter URL without any intervention by me (the poster) or the person who owns the real URL being pointed at. We could help Twitter out by creating some kind of convention for grabbing shortened URLs from a site. I’m thinking of something like the link elements that are used to discover RSS feeds. Either you could include a shorter URL in an appropriately labelled link element, or you could have a more general link to a preferred URL shortener for your site.

The idea here is that not only should humans be able to get short links from your site, but software should be able to as well. All we need is a whole bunch of Web sites to start doing this the same way.

Dave also mentions this:

Now that URL length has become an issue for users, it might be even better for designers to view URLs as part of site design.

I think that the good news here is that good developers have been thinking about URL design for some time. That’s why we see most newer frameworks providing elegant, useful URLs. I think Rails is king here, but plenty of PHP frameworks also make it easy to do a better job with URLs, and most Java frameworks provide plenty of flexibility in the URL department if you choose to use it. I don’t think that brevity is the soul of a good URL, as there’s some value in a descriptive URL as well. We’ve come a long way since the bad old days. (See also: Brent’s Law of CMS URls.)

3 Comments

  1. Hi

    We’ve had that in Lifetype now for about two years. Short url’s that is. It’s not hard and is nothing new. I agree about it being inelegant and used to much as a convenience instead of writing the code necessary to render a seo friendly url…

  2. I’m already frustrated with TinyURLs because you can’t see where they’re going — imagine what happens if the Storm worm or the like starts using them!

  3. Django is pretty flexible for site URLs as well. It should be relatively simple to bake in a shortened URL mapper.

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