Double U, Double U, Double U: The Scourge of the URL

With much ado about the "decline of the mobile web", we've glossed over the most important difference betweens websites and apps: What an awful experience it is to expose URLs to end users

April 10, 2014
Jonathan Libov

I first learned about the web in 6th grade gym class (I'll leave it to your imagination what one peak-pubescent boy was browsing on the web that made it so vital to recommend to another). One of the things I remember most about this exchange was my classmate spelling out "h","t","t","p","colon", etc. and how computer-geeky that seemed.

While many of those problems have been obviated in years since, there are many reasons why URLs continue to be a terrible, unforgiving way of presenting things to end users:

  • You can mistype URLs. Long ago, in the absence of Google, this was a major pain. I remember having URLs written down on paper, including the occasional ~ character. Most of the problems have since been obviated by Google and more forgiving routing schemes, but it still occurs.
  • People still fret about coming across as illegitimate or amateurish because they don't own the ".com" for their brand
  • Short URLs can obscure malicious websites and bring down the average consumers' level of certainty that a URL which looks safe probably is safe
  • URLs can expose information that would be of use to hackers
  • A common basis for phishing scams is mimicking real websites ("You must change your password now at")
  • It is interminable to spell out a URL to someone or have it spelled out to you

Having URLs for native mobile apps would be the best of both worlds

Following Flurry's report that mobile users are spending less and less time "browsing the web", Chris Dixon and Fred Wilson lamented that the lack of openness in the native app ecosystem is slowing innovation. John Gruber was right to point out that the web is a lot more than just firing up your browser. We tap on web links from within apps all the time, and that should surely count as web usage.

Yet there's another aspect of the web vs. native app debate which has been overlooked: Apps don't have standard URLs that would enable clicking from one app to content in another app. That's a real drawback of apps, as it prevents users from clicking to and discovering something new in an instant.

It would be great to have open, robust URL schemes on iOS & Android. Ideally, if users don't have the app they clicked to, they'd end up on that app's page in the App Store, with the deep link preserved. Or to the app's mobile website.

But let's count our blessings that such a scheme would be completely hidden from users. I think we can all agree that the best experience, both on the web and on mobile, would be to make URLs a thing of the past.

Just take a look at what Google might look like with the title of websites instead of URLs. I'm not sure how we'll get from here to there, but I think we'll make it. Wouldn't surprise me if it happens on mobile first.