URLs will be an Anachronism

The search box circumvents the address bar
After playing with Google’s Chrome browser for the last few days, I noticed the “Address” bar, which is just called a “Omnibox” (corrected from just “box” via comments) is really a search field. Anything entered into it will deliver a webpage (it first looks at your historical activities) or renders Google search results (or search of your preference, including twitter search). As a result, it’s become apparently that I no longer need to enter in URLs to my browser for 99% of all tasks.

[Chrome is a nod to the future, the address bar is really a search bar. URLs will be an anachronism]

is what I mentioned in Twitter with a flurry of agreements back from the community. Lori MacVittie expands further on the idea and agrees that like engine parts in our car, or IP addresses, they mainly go invisible as we drive to our real world or online destinations.

What’s next: content to be found and served through context
I have an odd habit of counting how many TV advertisements don’t have a URL somewhere in it, on average, I only count 1-2 per hour, nearly all are signaling to viewers to learn more on the web. If I’m curious about a product, I can manually enter in the URL, or do a search to find the site. Given that Google has experimented with active listening to TV programs through the mic on your computer, there’s ways to serve up contextual information at any point of your TV watching experience, thinking further, when TV and the web truly marry, entering in URLs will truly be an extinct activity.

Of course, URLs will always be there, but like signs on the road, they move into the background and let you focus on what’s really important –your destination.

For me, I’m happy to say good bye to URLs and move on to more contextual ways of finding, or serving information through digital spaces, the next phase of information navigation is starting.

Love to hear your thoughts:

  • 1) Will URLs go away?
  • 2) At what point will URLs be an Anachronism?
  • 3) What is needed to make this happen?
  • 4) How will be find (or be served) information in the future?
  • Can you answer the above 3 questions without saying the “S” word? (semantic), try to, it’s good for ya.

    53 Replies to “URLs will be an Anachronism”

    1. Wow, great thoughts here Jeremiah, compliments on the foresight. I think that one of the main motivators in this change is going to be adoption of new web browsers. As I look at our analytics everyday the one major hurdle I see is IE, or rather IE6, which is still what 30% of our users are.. using. Once you can transition the majority to a browser that is less URL based I think you have taken a huge leap. Also I think it is of note that 40% or so of our visits originate from search engines, people are using keywords, just not through their browser/address bars yet.

    2. URLs are the backbone of how the Internet is structured and provide the foundation for the search engines to find your content (also why file structure is so important in IA). That may change slightly, but it won’t be driven by marketers, it will be driven by the tech. The reason Google is able to contextually deliver results now through the address bar is because they have crawled and indexed a trillion pages online via their URLs.

    3. But all of this foresight is based on the wants and needs of the consumer.I applaud the foresight BTW.

      Let us not forget that URLs will never go away for the simple fact of brands needing to claim their own domain. Like anything else in the brand new expansive world, the need to mark off your territory and protect it will always be there. The need to proclaim that marked off and protected space will always be there too.

    4. I think URLs are important in the background. They many still remain relevant as a way to ‘get somewhere.’ However, they could be equated to the stage crew that the audience never sees but is essential to the experience.

      I’ve conducted many usability sessions in my life and most people that don’t use the Internet all the time (like me and my friends) already think the URL bar is the search bar. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked someone to find information and the first thing they do is to type what they are looking for in the bar.

      I don’t think PEOPLE will miss it in the foreground.

    5. Simple is generally better; abstraction is one key differentiation of human intelligence. Art went to the masses when abstraction was born. I think that as younger generations (born w/technology) jump into the work force we will start abstracting much more information and technology will become beautiful to the masses not only functional.

    6. In Japan they don’t use URLs in TV advertisements, because the Japanese have a hard time remembering our letters – just as we would have difficulties with URLs in Japanese.

      Japan might be a good place to learn about the challanges of the new era with all search and no URLs. They have been there a long time.

    7. I agree with Tamera; basics of the Internet is tech and URLs won’t disappear that easily.

      But to answer your question, nobody cares about URLs anymore. In fact, since Google anybody cares about URLs … only geeks and nerds use the address bar to type the URL of a website. Ask non tech savvy how they surf the web, they would answer “I type in Google”. And that’s what Google did with Chrome: they add the search feature in the address bar to make it finally useful (one of last part of the 90s tech-only web) and killed the standalone search bar. One click less and a direct plug to Google to kill other search engines.

      To answer 4) information would still be served like today: you go on a specific platform to get information given by journalists (or people paid to do so). Semantic would only be there to help you be lazier since it would better match your needs and requests.

    8. If URLs move to the background (embedded in links but invisible to users), what happens to the “social” aspect of web creation? How will average users learn to link to other content as they learn to create their own? How will they share what they discover with friends?

      I know, everyone under 30 has given up on email, but I see emailed links in my referrer logs all the time. I don’t want to see links replaced with SEO roulette (quick, what’s the query to make *this specific post* come up in Google? will it work next year?). If someone wants to send a link to my site to a friend, let them.

      URLs provide a guarantee that the user will find specific content (the company from your TV ad), while search might send them somewhere else (think of local advertisers–big national brands are too easy). If search replaces URLs, do we expect users (who never figured out URLs, apparently) to become search ninjas?

    9. Such a move makes sense. Look at what’s happened since mobile phones have become pervasive – how many peoples’ phone number do you remember now? Instead, you’re more likely to use the search functionality embedded in the phone, rather than punching in a number. That type of functionality in a browser seems like a logical next step.

    10. Doesn’t your observation about the increasing number of ads with URL’s negate your idea that URL’s will go away?

      URL’s are for when you want something SPECIFIC, search is for when you’re not exactly sure what you want. The need to be specific will never go away.

    11. 1. URLs are already almost gone. Google’s use of anchor text of inbound links to your site, and the importance of search, already means that people use your brand terms to find you, not your URL. Corporate marketers should focus on optimizing brand terms in Google rather than try to get people to type in URLs.

      2. there will always be people who want a command line interface. URLs will always be supported for those who want it. And there are edge cases where you want to test a link before putting it into a blog post or something like that. It will be like the DOS command prompt in windows. Available, but hidden.

      3. Better and better web search. In the background bookmarking and history, driving a more personalized set of navigational tools.

      4. Your personal context across applications will be captured, stored, and available for you to put to use, across the Web. I think a “smart and private FriendFeed” will emerge, where I’ll be lifestreaming for my own use rather than for sharing information. This will inform all my Web applications and help them serve up the right information for my context. I also think apps like FF oriented toward sharing will continue to get smarter and smarter. The world will be open…no more walled gardens like Facebook!

      Random thoughts of the mornin’ for you Jeremiah!

    12. one more thing…

      semantic semantic semantic

      🙂

      I resent the fact that at UpTake we are doing sentiment extraction and semantic analysis of reviews, and have had to scrub it from our go-to-market language because the term is so burned out…

      Fine, we’ll keep that secret until (a) we perfect it (no its not perfect) and (b) the market recovers from the hype curve on the term (thanks Powersoft)

    13. Great post! Small correction. It’s called the “Omnibox” not “Box”. I liken the Omnibox to Vista’s start search feature… no more remembering – just search!

    14. The “box” of the future won’t deliver search results. It will deliver process results. Semantic technologies like the Calo project are focusing on translating context (who am I, what do I mean when I type something) into business process. Throw in social collaborative process development and we will see not only the end of URL’s, but search and advertising as we know it.

    15. Sometimes you are obligated to repeat history. Around 12 years ago this same debate took place of whether average people would use URLs or just type in the vernacular into the address bar. Businesses failed to push this seemingly obvious advance, and this was when URLs were new and foreign to most.

      Part of the reason that URLs have won was because of Google and other good search engines obviated the need to type in long or forgotten URLs. If people had to type in URLs most of the time, that would have been a problem. However, deep links, bookmarking and including links in web pages makes URLs very important. And in most of these roles, the URL is hidden in the href attribute.

      But even with URLs being mainly hidden, although ubiquitous, URLs are going through a transition to simplicity. First, because of Twitter and printed materials, short URL redirects have become very popular (e.g. tinyurl.com). Second, thanks to the work of Roy Fielding on REST (essentially the grammar of the Web) as well as TBL, URLs have become simpler. Good URLs should not include long SQL database calls, but either be human understandable or simply designed. Slowly content management tools are cleaning up their acts by creating better URLs.

      But I would say that URLs are actually increasing in use, rather than shrinking. As URLs are universal and unique identifiers, they are becoming the underpinning of metadata systems and object databases (see: tagging and XQuery). I would say we are at the dawn of the power of URLs. But, lets check back in a dozen years and see if we have the same discussion.

      Note: on my website I talk about and have related links.

    16. excellent post Jeremiah – I would add, as I have posted on my blog in the past; For a few decades, what is the first thing you saw when you turned on your PC? …Windows (your PC). We are now in a generation when the first thing a user sees when they turn on their PC (or whatever their access device is)is the Internet (your browser).

      Google realizes that as the doorway the browser is of the utmost importance, as real estate going forward. Taking this thought one step forward, more and more often, searches are taking place from within the browser. There exists (most users do not even realize) a HUGE cottage industry of Toolbars (hundreds of millions of them)whose sole revenue model is allowing users to perform search from within the browser. Though I welcome not needing a URL to navigate going forward I can not help but look at the monetary implications to Google as well.

      Lastly to answer your question more specifically, I do not believe that URL’s will ever go away – That will not happen until we receive what’s left of our postal mail via people only needing to write our name on the envelope (no address/zip necessary). It may be that Google wants everyone to look at this as the demise of the URL, but more importantly to them (money wise) is the demise of the need for other search tool bars in the browser.

      http://www.twitter.com/A_F

    17. Topline thought: I find myself typing brand name, search term, person name, etc into address bar more and more, rather than full url– in Firefox, not Chrome yet.

      this is a natural progression for me. The question is, will consumer find it easier to do that? possible. Another question: will IE adopt it, or will another browser- like Chrome- take over IE’s market share and change the game? I think wither of those could take a long time. but in general, I agree with your notion, and with that caveat, we could see it happen someday.

    18. URL’s will not go away, they will just become less critical when in the online environment. I find that most people find my blog through contextual search, and this was pre-Chrome. In the offline environment, a good, short, relevant URL to print on a business card, put in an ad or write on a scrap of paper will still be important. Or like my friend @gdruckman, you can just hand out biz cards that simply read, “Google me.”

      I think what Chrome, and others that follow its example, will do is make the search engine more central to our Internet experience. Already over half say they use a search engine at least once a day. I have wondered if this self-reporting isn’t a little low since most browsers have the search function embedded in them. Chrome just takes that a step further.

    19. Very interesting! In many cases for me personally, my habits already are to type a URL (or what I think a URL may be, for a site I’m visiting for the first time) into the address bar, and see where it takes me. In the case of a more broad search, not knowing a specific site in advnace, I’ll use the built in search box. Now, I’ll do it all in the Omnibox.
      BTW – any idea on when Chrome will be available for Mac?
      Finally, technically URLs can’t really go away, since they’re needed for database structure/web architecture. Right? But the notion of a URL for a user’s purpose, yes that seems to be in question.

    20. I think we have a long way to go before URL’s go away. As some people have already pointed out, IE6 still has a huge install base.

      Another issue with URL’s going away is how much power gets transferred to the browser. For example, what if you typed in “coke” in Google Chrome vs. IE? Would one take you to a search and the other bring you to Coca Cola’s corporate site? This could get very confusing real fast.

      Finally, there are billions of people using the web. That’s a lot of mental models to change. I think we tend to get ahead of ourselves sometimes because many of us are on the cutting edge of this stuff.

      Hopefully many of these hurdles will be proven to not make any difference. I’d love to see URL’s go away but right now they’re the backbone of the web. It’s going to take some work.

    21. Anyone remember AOL keywords? That’s the biggest issue with moving away from URLs – companies and brands need unique words to allow their customers to find them. They’ll use more and more unique words until they exhaust the namesapce, again. I can’t see them being content to use just a collection of tags and hope they’re up at the top of the search pile.

    22. Does this mean your email signature will no longer be sporting 4 URLs?

      URLs are particularly critical when your product is not inherently unique. Let’s take you for example. There probably aren’t a lot of Jeremiah Owyangs out there thanks to your last name, but there are dozens of folks with my full name (middle name, too). With a name like yours combined with your online presence, you could easily remove those URLs from your signature, but I am not so fortunate.

    23. I have been thinking about this from a long time( long before Chrome). And you will soon start to see TV ads asking you to search something to find about that product, instead of giving URL of the site

    24. I think the key assumption being made is that search engines have the relevancy nut ‘cracked’. I still have to wade through countless SEO spam sites for many searches I perform. Thank goodness for negating operators. Asking television viewers to wade through this garbage is a horrible mistake.

      In addition, even when results relevancy is good, I have seen my site disappear from google results when I have 10 results per page, then magically show up as number 2 when I go to a higher result count per page. I was able to reproduce this for days.

      Somehow I can’t see marketing heads saying, “Don’t launch our product at 12 midnight EST, wait until the spiders crawl the new pages, then launch the campaign. We’ll just wait; we’re the patient type.”

    25. Not everybody speaks roman letters

      URLs are roman letters – or a subset of roman letters. The majority of the population in this world don’t use roman letters. They can’t memorize a URL.

      They don’t type a company name with roman letters. They search. They don’t care about URL’s. They never have, never will.

      Google et al know that.

    26. Great post Jeremiah.

      I agree that these type of browsers are not being widely adopted yet. IE is still the most widely used by our site users too. Even Mozilla is a distant second.

      As far as the extinction of URLs is concerned, I don’t think we’re quite there, but it definitely looks like the trend is to let search engines do the work. As you noted in another post, Mozilla’s newest version fills in the URL for you based on recent searches and site history.

      On an aside, I just started using Flock, which is a social media friendly browser and I actually find it better formatted than Chrome. I understand Chrome is trying to simplify things, but as far as RSS subscription and instantly sharing sites or media, I find it lacking at this point.

    27. Brian.

      Yes, URLs are needed until contextual relevancy is solved. How far are we from that? Social context is starting to appear, which will nod to a new type of relevancy that will follow that.

      I’m sure Google is spending millions figuring that out, expect Chrome to be a delivery device for contextual relevant content.

    28. @ Daniel Bennett

      Thank you for the link. It is great if you can type URLs in hiragana, but in my opinion search is much better.

      Try carlsberg.com and carlsberg.cm.

      It’s a mess. Forget URLs.

    29. Jeremiah,
      So are you saying that social relevance will depend on a single, dominant search engine or that advertisers will direct users to specific search engines (aka AOL keyword)? Will relevance boil down to sponsored search results? Finally, isn’t social context cultural? What information about myself must I provide a search engine to attach to the correct social paradigm? The search you envision I fear will be compromised by commercial and political influences (to name a few), not that I believe current relevancy scoring is not already affected by these factors.

      Ultimately, it is not so much the demise of the URL as the rise of an equal peer with different uses and focus. It’s like when people say email is going away–it isn’t. It’s just that other forms of communication are also gaining popularity.

    30. brian

      When you look at it closely, social context is what is driving the current search engines. Take Google for example, sure there’s a hefty computer program that’s analyzing and serving the content.

      Yet, Google employees admit themselves that the search is looking at linking structure –which as we all know, is often created by humans themselves, so the social context is already there.

      And yes, wherever people go, marketers follow, always has, likely always will.

    31. Jeremiah, I think your’e dodging the issue here, which is that for advertisers to abandon the URL in favor of “google us”, they have to be certain that no black-hat SEO competitors will negatively affect their relevancy rankings. How can this happen without a little $$$ to each search engine provider? Part of why people gravitated towards google in the 90s was because paid results were clearly differentiated from organic ones. To me it looks like google is creating a new market where they can be the key purveyor. They’ve got some smart people over there.

    32. brian

      No dodging here. Check out that link to Techcrunch that I linked to in the post. Google is already experimenting with context sensitive content serving… in this case, they have software that can listen to what you’re watching on TV through the mic on your laptop and serve up contextual information.

      Soon, the web will be ubiquitous providing mobile phones and GPS, social context, historical data, and personal preferences to serve up data as you need it.

      Sure, there will always be someone who attempts to cut into the natural search results, but it’s not difficult for Google –or users– to quickly determine which is the corporate or competitive content.

      Make sense?

    33. Kevin Kelly answers those questions in this video on the first 5,000 days of the web and the next 5,000 days.

      Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, spoke to a TED conference last winter. The video is about 20 minutes long but he talks about the future being about what he calls “the one,” expressing an idea popularized by Ray Kurzweil and others when humans and artificial intelligence will merge.

      He suggests the first phase will occur in about 10 years when everything in the physical world gets attached with a digital signature and the line between “real” and “virtual” is thin.

      Fascinating video.

    34. So google is bringing back VH1’s pop-up video for any channel I watch? And this is a good thing? All I’m saying is that in a world where many marketing campaigns measure success in single digit returns, ditching URLs in television ads would be idiotic. If you tell people to google you and even a couple percent mistake other content for yours, you’ve blown it. There will always be places where you aren’t watching TV your computer/cellphone like sporting events, transit stations, bars, the supermarket checkout stand, just to name a few. And let’s not forget print media/billboards etc… What these mediums have in common is they are not opt-in unlike the user glued to their computer/media-center/cell phone who is electing to get this metadata, which will also surely be riddled with ads, the opportunity cost that many will pass on.

    35. I think the urls will be relevant until the technology behind the omnibox (or any other alternative to address box in a browser) can become smart enough to take us to the right destination even when those web pages that are hidden behind the home page. May be this might spawn a new market for “address bar optimization”?

    36. # 1) Will URLs go away?
      URL’s will become addresses and people will focus on the destination instead of the address. Browsers will become GPS’s to guide you to were you want to go, with fewer turns…

      # 2) At what point will URLs be an Anachronism?
      Never.

      # 3) What is needed to make this happen?
      Again, URLs are addresses. And just as normal addresses will never leave because of their precision, URLs will never leave. Instead, people will say, “I want to know about HP’s products” and the browser will interpret that and go to the products on HP’s website.

      # 4) How will be find (or be served) information in the future?
      See above answer.

    37. @ Søren Storm Hansen

      “In Japan they don’t use URLs in TV advertisements, because the Japanese have a hard time remembering our letters – just as we would have difficulties with URLs in Japanese.”

      URL’s exist and advertised not only with english:

      イケア.com
      ИКЕА.com
      宜家.com

    38. Perhaps I’m missing the point but it sounds to Orwellian to me. Essentially, Google’s vast database of URL’s is your pathway to the world through their new browser. Google becomes the Thought Police…Big Brother, sort of like state-run TV or radio in a dictatorship. Want to win a war, take over Google first so you can feed people information that you want them to hear and see? Is this their premise or am I missing the boat? (I’ve missed it before.)

    39. Who knew that my parents were the thought leaders, having used search instead of the URL bar from the time they first touched a web browser until this vary day.

      I’d rather have Google spend energy coming up with a replacement for social security numbers than for URLs.

    40. Wow. Great dialog, and a very interesting perspective & insight into a basic feature of Chrome. But I do have a few thoughts.

      1. I think Chrome provides a very intuitive and user centered approach to reaching “your destination” as you point out. But let’s not forget that this browser was built by Google. Firefox, Flock, Internet Explorer don’t necessarily have an allegiance to Google.

      2. Marketers of any kind would not abandon URL’s. As Dave Kelly (comment #9) introduces a parallel to the phone’s address book, we would not necessarily abandon our names. URL = Brand Name in the most basic sense. They won’t go away.

      3. That said, to counter my #2 slightly, I think it’s absolutely true that URLs will become less critical. Or I should say, properly formatted URLs will be less critical. Just about everyone I know Googles a company name or keyword before they bother asking for a URL. Search is THAT GOOD.

      Overall this is a great observation, but let’s not get too extreme on our view of the future.

    41. I have been following some of your writings and you are really able to compose your thoughts well. I am relatively new to blogging and I could use some input… let me know what you think

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