We are all familiar with URLs: the string uniquely identifying the requested document. However, we don’t always consider they are more than that: URLs are user facing and should be considered important UI elements.
They should be clean, understandable, semantic, hierarchical and not excessively long.
If the URL looks like garbage people won’t click it
A study conducted by Microsoft found URLs play a vital role in assessing the security and credibility of a website:
Edward Cutrell and Zhiwei Guan from Microsoft Research have conducted an eyetracking study of search engine use (warning: PDF) that found that people spend 24% of their gaze time looking at the URLs in the search results.
We found that searchers are particularly interested in the URL when they are assessing the credibility of a destination. If the URL looks like garbage, people are less likely to click on that search hit. On the other hand, if the URL looks like the page will address the user’s question, they are more likely to click.
(source: URL as UI)
After all the URL is one of the first things you see when visiting a new website, and first impressions are important. A clean and understandable URL simply looks professional.
Not only clean, but semantic and hierarchical
URLs must have meaning and be hierarchical. Search engines just love semantic URLs and it’s also a usability matter: URLs can serve as a navigational aid, sort of secondary breadcrumbs.
Let’s take the amazon page selling the mirra chair as an example. The URL seems written by someone rolling their head on the keyboard: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0002K11BK/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1348439859&s=home-garden&sr=1-5. Now compare that with http://example.org/furniture/desk-chairs/herman-millers-mirra-chair.
Not only does the latter look good but it also communicates you are in the Furniture > Desk Chairs category. There is also an added bonus: it’s just begging to be hacked. It’s intuitive you can go to the list of all furniture just by removing parts of it, http://example.org/furniture/.
URLs can contain information about the page contents before they are even clicked. This is very advantageous in some communication mediums, such as chats, IMs, tweets, emails and forums.
Compare someone linking in a chat https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5489039 versus https://news.ycombinator.com/5489039/if-the-earth-were-100-pixels-wide. The former tells you little to nothing, the latter gives you a good idea what it’s going to be. This makes you more likely to click it if it sparked your interest.
Hello, it’s 2013
Clean URLs are certainly more popular than they used to be but it’s still somewhat rare to find websites meeting all the characteristics listed above.
We also have a huge black sheep: Google. Even in 2013 we still have https://www.google.com/search?q=characteristic#hl=en&safe=off&sclient=psy-ab&q=example&oq=example&gs_l=serp.3..0i20l2j0l2.14456.15234.3.153126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52.2184.108.40.206…0.0…1c.1.8.psy-ab.N7EClFK_p4g&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.44770516,d.ZGU&fp=9d62ffac663ef7ec&biw=1920&bih=944. The reason for that monstrosity is a mystery, especially considering https://www.google.com/search?q=example produces exactly the same page.
Put the effort required to make your URLs user friendly; it’s worth it and usually doesn’t require a lot of work.