Google Chrome Plans to Kill the URL

Google Chrome is rethinking the URL

September 13, 2018

Author: Anna Maria von Kentzinsky

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It could change the Internet, as we understand and use it today, forever. The team behind Google Chrome is currently working to replace the URL, according to WIRED magazine.

To many, the news comes as a surprise and raises fundamental questions. The URL and the web are inseparably interwoven, aren’t they? How could this possibly work? The next thought that comes to mind: Isn’t that a counterproductive strategy on Google’s part? After all, indexing URLs made the company the gigantic corporation it is today. Put in a nutshell, how does one come up with the idea of undergoing a self-prescribed heart transplant?

One thing is for certain: Google doesn’t do anything without mulling it over first. The question is: what problem do URLs have that the world’s largest search engine wants to replace its core with something ‘better’ – and what exactly is that supposed to be?

URLs got a safety issue

What is the problem with Uniform Resource Locators? After all, they stick to an inherent logic. They contain:

  • the transfer protocol (HTTP or HTTPS – is the page secure?)
  • the domain name (identity of the source)
  • the path (subpage of the source and its content)

At least in theory. However, safe and readable URLs – at least for the most part – exist only in a perfect world. In real life, not every webmaster knows SEO and has an interest in and the resources to present every single URL comprehensively. Unfortunately, the web is not a perfect place. URLs are often made of unintelligible sequences of numbers and characters that say little about the content of a page. For trackings, they contain additions laymen can’t understand. URL Shorteners mask the original URL completely; the underlying URL cannot be identified without know-how and effort. For the average user, this is like blind booking. More often than not, URLs cannot even be fully displayed on smartphone displays. In an increasingly mobile world, it is even more difficult to determine whether the source – i.e. the domain that is currently being visited – is trustworthy or the one it claims to be. For some years now, the weaknesses of URLs have been increasingly exploited for criminal purposes. For example, company websites are imitated in order to steal sensitive user data.

Adrienne Porter Felt, Engineering Manager at Google Chrome and her team, also recognizes the hard readability of URLs. She told WIRED:

They’re [URLs] hard to read, it’s hard to know which part of them is supposed to be trusted, and in general I don’t think URLs are working as a good way to convey site identity. So we want to move toward a place where web identity is understandable by everyone. … But this will mean big changes in how and when Chrome displays URLs. We want to challenge how URLs should be displayed and question it as we’re figuring out the right way to convey identity.

So it’s about trust. Google’s idea of rethinking URLs seems to have overarching objectives. The company can only secure its flagship position if the user truly trusts the search results.

No specific solution in sight

According to WIRED, it is still unclear what the solution for URLs by Adrienne Porter Felt and her team will be. Academics have been working on various options for years, since the problem doesn’t come with an easy solution. Porter Feldt and her colleague Justin Schuh (Principal Engineer at Chrome) report to WIRED that even their team is still divided about the right approach. The team kept quiet about what those ideas are. However, we might get an answer in autumn or by spring 2019.

Parisa Tabriz, Director of Engineering at Google Chrome is aware of the radical potential of their project. She told WIRED :

I don’t know what this will look like, because it’s an active discussion in the team right now. But I do know that whatever we propose is going to be controversial. That’s one of the challenges with a really old and open and sprawling platform. Change will be controversial whatever form it takes. But it’s important we do something, because everyone is unsatisfied by URLs. They kind of suck.

A web without URL? It’s hardly imaginable how this could look like. Every webmaster’s and SEO’s hair stands on end when considering the far-reaching consequencecs killing the URL might entail. What will happen to my website, my rankings, my turnover? To say it with the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”: DON’T PANIC! For the time being, there’s just nothing you can do but wait and see. At this point, we know nothing other than something will change at some point in the future. Don’t change your strategies and projects now. We will learn more within the next months and there will be ample time to make necessary preparations, if needed. What is important now? 1. Stay on top of this topic (we will keep you updated!) 2. Start preparing in time once instructions and a timeline have been published.

Author: Anna Maria von Kentzinsky