Human Readable URLs

"Human readable URLs" If we were to tell you the directions to our local pub it would be “Out the door, cross the main road and you’re there”. What we wouldn’t say is “Open the door to the office, go down the carpeted steps – all fifteen of them – out internal door to the front, go down the concrete steps – all six of them – walk along the pavement, stop at the kerb, look both ways, when safe cross the tarmac road, step back up onto the pavement, turn right, proceed to the front door (wood and glass) of first building on the left hand side”. It’s the same with website URLs – what is the point of telling visitors what’s going on in the background when it doesn’t help them get to their destination?

A URL should be a key element of a website’s user experience. Through better use of it visitors will be able to remember locations, guess locations and refer others to the location more easily.

A classic example of a bad URL usage is www.marksandspencer.com – Looking for a wardrobe? – trying www.marksandspencer.com/furniture because it’s human readable and guessable? You’d be wrong – the actual URL is http://www.marksandspencer.com/IWCatSectionView.process?Section_Id=833 – try remembering that when chatting to your friends in the pub.

Having clean URLs is becoming increasingly popular, chiefly because there is no reason to expose the core workings of the website in the URL. Simply put, Server technology means that the URL doesn’t have to point to a file name – so you can translate the file name to a suitable URL.

If you can guess a URL then you’ll get there quicker. Looking for business news at the BBC website? Typing in “http://www.domain.com/news/business” seems logical – and it works.

URLs should never change – if they point to a resource now then they need to keep that relationship in the future – that means that if Siemens bring in URL ‘mapping’ they will need to make sure that if anyone goes to their bookmark for mobile phones that they can still get to the same resource.

As URLs need to be supported forever it means that care needs to be taken in the naming structure for a site. For example if a company has a number of restaurants in London and uses www.company.com/restaurant_name and they subsequently add International wide restaurants to their portfolio then they should consider re-structuring the same URL to www.domain.com/IN/Punjab/Restaurant_name. The best way of avoiding pitfalls is by careful information architecture planning and forethought.

So it’s not the coolest thing on the planet, it’s not hip or slick – but having a decent URL naming strategy should be a critical element of a website’s customer experience strategy – keeping it simple and making it helpful.