Micah the blog.

Micah is a designer with social skills and an interest in technology and humanity.
micahspieler.com • @micahspieler

June 24, 2010 at 10:36am

The case of extremely long URLs and the simple reasons why they frustrate me.

I was working on some social media initiatives today for the office that I work in, and was trying to link the facebook photo albums I was making to the office website in a more meaningful way than facebook provides right out of the box. 

Now, I haven’t kept close watch over what’s changed each time facebook redesigns itself, or what functionality is reserved solely for proper “profiles” over “fan pages” - but I remember a day when there was a little link at the bottom of each photo that said something along the lines of “if you want to share this photo publicly, use this link.” It provided you with a link that was approximately 60 characters long. I am now appreciating that simplicity, and even though 60 characters isn’t exactly twitter friendly, it was a straight forward link that contained (what I can assume) facebook.com/youruserID/thealbumID.

Now, jump forward to today (because I was working on being a S-M-GuRu today) and that link is no where to be found. The “share” button doesn’t help much - the only two functions it actually provides are posting it to your profile or sending it as a facebook message to a friend. So, like any smart internet user, I turned to the address bar to find the address of my 100% public photo album, only to find a 168 character URL.  That’s longer than a standard SMS - and definitely NOT twitter friendly. Not to mention the thing was littered with obscene characters (f#?%). The URL length has basically doubled in a year - and with that rate of growth, within the next few years we’re going to have URLs the size of short paragraphs.

I am not a network specialist. I don’t know how databases work or how facebook stores it’s photos or how dynamic URLs are allocated - but this also isn’t a problem confined to facebook - I see these ever lengthening URLs creeping up everywhere, especially when it’s pretty obvious a heavy-lifting CMS is being used. 

The real point here is: these mile-long URLs are not usability friendly. They are confusing, hard to copy, easy to mess-up, don’t paste well into social media situations, and overall are just ugly. This might be a minor usability foible, but in good design it’s the smallest details that can make the biggest difference.

Case study: In this same orientation office, we redesigned our website, implementing an easier-to-use design and a CMS - with out developer completely ignoring the URL structuring of our site. It came time to start designing our summer print publications, and we wanted to link to a certain page only to realize that the URL to that page was 2.5 lines long. We had to go back and retroactively set up redirectors so we could publish more usable links to our web content.

Have you ever tired to paste a NYT article into Twitter? “http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/24/us/24latest.html?scp=2&sq=&st=nyt" - this isn’t even one of the worst offenders, weighing in at only 67 characters. But that leaves me with less than 73 characters to tweet with? The truth is, "http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/24/us/24latest.html" gets you to the same article. Even better you drop the www (we all know we’re on the WORLD WIDE WEB). All of a sudden, that URL almost makes sense - the date it was published, and the article title, dot html. 

I think that URL structuring is something that I’ll make sure to take into consideration next time I use a CMS to build a website - where you don’t necessarily control the name of every directory and every file. And while it may seem minuscule, each little step can make the web more usable.

Also, how cool would it be to set up a database search function that takes whatever string appears after your domain name and “I’m feeling lucky” searches it. “http://www.mycooldomain.com/where can I buy the best candy” would take you to the review you wrote about the coolest candy store in town. Not what you were looking for? The site would have one of those “traffic sources” sniffers (OH! YOU COME FROM A SOCIAL MEDIA LIN!K? PLS PLS PLS SHARE THIS SITE SO I CAN MAKE ADBUXXX) that acknowledges you might not be on the right page and would offer you another chance to search what for what you’re looking for, this time with a more robust search page showing you all the ranked results. #ideas #justathought


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