Google Wants To Kill The URL And Makes A Start With Chrome 69
Written by Mike James   
Friday, 07 September 2018

Google is  20 years this week and Chrome is 10. You would think that they would both show some maturity, but instead we have an experiment that most aren't going to like. Are URLs that bad and is it Google's job to put things right?

It is almost a recurrent theme for me at the moment - browser makers should stick to making standards compliant browsers and not to making browsers the standard. Google is particularly dangerous in this respect because its search engine controls traffic to most websites and hence it can threaten if you don't fit in with its "suggestions".

chromlogo2018

The latest proactive stance is a little difficult to fathom because the problem is identified but not the solution.  Adrienne Porter Felt, part of Chrome's security team, said in an interview with Wired:

"People have a really hard time understanding URLs"

True enough.

"We we want to move toward a place where web identity is understandable by everyone -- they know who they're talking to when they're using a website and they can reason about whether they can trust them ... It's important we do something, because everyone is unsatisfied by URLs. They kind of suck."

I doubt that everyone is "unsatisfied by URLs" because I think that many users haven't even got much of a clue that they exist. The majority of users don't navigate by plugging in a URL, they simply click links and use search results.

At the moment it isn't clear what Google has in mind to replace the URL, but the strange thing is that this parallels things that happened in the file system world some time ago. Ever since Unix, the file system user interface has been presented as a hierarchical tree structure and the URL is simply an extension of this with a hierarchical domain name tacked onto the front to identify the server that stores the file. OK, there are additional features of the URL like the query string and the protocol, but in essence the URL is a good old path name.

A while back Microsoft, among others, realized that users simply didn't know where their files were because they didn't understand path names. Even if they did, they still tended to forget where they put that incredibly important file. In the mobile world this problem was "solved' by getting rid of files and just using apps. It is why Android, for example, doesn't have a default file browser (mostly). Microsoft took a different approach to the file system - search. The idea was that a search engine would continuously scan the drives to find files and build an index. When the user inevitably lost their file, they only had to type in its name, or something like its name, and they would be shown  possible matches. This is still how Windows intends users to work, and while it might not be quite the most up front aspect of modern Windows search, is still at the center of things.

Does this sound familiar?

Google "solved" the problem of the URL in the file system sense by providing a search engine that removed the need to type in, or even know, the URL.

So what is the Chrome team complaining about?

The fact of the matter is that users sometimes check that a URL is authentic. That is, if a link says www.google.com then is probably OK to follow it. However, if the user is savy enough to know to look at the URL then they are probably savy enough not to be thrown by irrelevancies like the www in front of the important google.com.

Even so the Chrome team thinks that removing the irrelevancies from URLs might make it easier to understand them. So in the latest Chrome 69 the http:// and the https:// have been removed from the start of the URL as have other irrelevancies such as www., m. and  other things that they haven't bothered to list.

This is a mistake, as changing URLs is what scammers do and Google has now disconnected what you type in from what it shows. In addition, the scope for getting it wrong is quite high. ?What if a site shows different content on www.example.com and example.com? What if it has www in the middle of a longer URL? 

This is clearly not the final step and if the Chrome team really wants to get rid of URLs we can only hope that, rather than going unilateral and establishing a de facto standard, they go to the relevant standards bodies and do the job properly. This is not an area a browser maker should be innovating in. The scope for a Google web v our web is all too obvious. Before the web as we know it today there were walled gardens such as AOL and MSN where content was controlled and accessed in non-standard and proprietary ways - let's not go back there.

There is possibly an argument for highlighting what is important in a URL, or better provide indicators in the browser if a URL has phishy features such as misleading Unicode or embedded top-level domains.

The bottom line is that URLs are not for end users and, with this proviso, they do the job very well.

 sslicon

More Information

Google Wants To Kill The Url

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Last Updated ( Friday, 07 September 2018 )