Goodbye to the Classic URL

Google Forces a Rethink on Web Address System

Google_Chrome_lIt’s been a decade since Google launched its Chrome Web browser. And it’s been a decade of massive success: Chrome is the most used browser in the world, surpassing Microsoft’s once-dominant Internet Explorer.

In its 10 years of existence, Chrome has introduced a series of pragmatic changes affecting people’s experience of the Internet, from popularising automatic updates to strongly promoting the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTPS) encryption standard. Now Google’s Chrome team is looking ahead to its next 10 years, focusing on what could be regarded as its most controversial initiative yet: rethinking the URL system.

URLs are the addresses of online pages; they direct browsers to the right Internet Protocol addresses that identify and differentiate Web servers. But over time, URLs have become increasingly difficult to read and understand. As Internet functionality has expanded, these locators have increasingly become unintelligible alphabet soup.

The current URL system has become particularly troublesome on smartphones and other mobile devices, which don’t offer much room to display a meaningful string of a URL. Cyber-criminals have learned to take advantage of this by running fraudulent online services; when users can’t keep track of where they are, it’s easier to confuse them. Now the Chrome team says it’s time to change how a site’s identity is displayed.

The Chrome team has been experimenting with changes to Web addresses for years. In 2014, it tried out a formatting feature called the “origin chip” that showed only the main domain name of a site to ensure users knew which domain they were browsing. Within a few weeks of making it available in a Chrome pre-release, Google discontinued the feature.

Similarly, Chrome’s HTTPS encryption initiative was met with a lot of pushback. Its transition to treat encrypted Web sites as standard and call out unencrypted sites as insecure seemed radical at first. But the team collaborated with other browsers and technology companies to spread the change across the Internet and promote encrypted connections to protect user privacy.

To be clear, Google isn’t trying to start a new URL system from scratch. Instead, it’s looking for ways to enhance what’s already in place. Google is clever to highlight the need for change to the deep-rooted Web address hierarchy. It’s never easy bringing down a legacy. There are almost 2 billion online sites worldwide and tens of trillions of pages. It might be a small world, but it’s a big World Wide Web.