As you may have heard, Google recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of the launch of Chrome and it did so with a bunch of announcements and new features. Among these the most controversial one was the death of the URL. The motivation for such a drastic move was the fact that many users don’t get URLs and it was thus necessary to replace them with something more modern and user-friendly.
At this point you’re probably confused, since the URL is such an established convention on the web, but let me explain why I think this choice could really make the web better for all of us.
A bit of history
Although the debate about whether we should still be using URLs started with Google’s announcement, it’s not the first time that the Mountain View company tried to kill them: its effort started in 2014 with the introduction of the Origin Chip.
If you’re not familiar with it, it was a radical rethinking of the search box interface (or Omnibox as Google likes to call it) that replaced complex web addresses with a chip containing the domain name of the site. So instead of seeing https://www.example.com/hello/world/ in the search box, you would have just seen example.com. This was initially thought of as an anti-phishing measure, because the shortness of the Origin Chip would have made it easier for the user to spot sites with suspicious domains.
Unfortunately, the origin chip was killed before even exiting the beta stage and Google never talked about it since then.
Fixing the Origin Chip
In my opinion the Origin Chip was a great start not only because it prevented phishing, but also because it made Chrome look much cleaner by hiding URLs, that are often perceived as extremely long series of random characters.
That said, I think it had a major flaw: it only highlighted what the domain was instead of clearly stating who the site owner was. This means that a phishing attack could be still carried out by just changing a letter in the URL to one that resembled it (such as a lowercase L to an uppercase I). Furthermore, replacing the domain with the owner’s name results in a much cleaner user interface (think about it: Example Inc. looks cleaner than example.com).
Exploring the possible drawbacks
Of course URLs are useful in certain situations, such as sharing or bookmarking, but with some work they could be replaced, here are a few examples.
One of the few things the URL does right in my opinion is its being easily shareable and for this reason I believe that, at least at the very start of Google’s experiment, we would still send URLs to other people through a share button in the browser or in web apps, thanks to Google’s Web Share API. But, in the long run, links will probably be replaced by a shareable Origin Chip, although this will take time since many services such as social networks and instant messaging apps would be required to switch to this new model.
Communicating to the user
An argument I heard a lot in favor of keeping URLs alive is that many web developers use their URLs to communicate the current state of the web app (such as the page you’re in) to their users. I would respond to this criticism by arguing that many users don’t even look at the URL while navigating a website, either because they to feel the need to do it or the browser hides the URL from them (just think about the auto-hiding search box in Google Chrome for Android).
So, if you want to communicate the state of your app or website to your user, I’d suggest to make it clear through the site’s interface and not through the browser.
This new paradigm shouldn’t really scare us: URLs aren’t that important to the web’s users and browsers have made changes much more radical than this one in the past, a clear example would be the fact that modern browsers chose to disable by default Adobe Flash, once a fundamental web technology.
So don’t worry and start thinking about what changes you could make to your app or website to make it more usable on a web without URLs.