If you know me, you know I’ve been a little obsessed with web addresses ever since I spent two years studying how people just don’t understand URLs, as part of my dissertation. I wrote an article on how UX designers’ choice over a decade ago to start hiding and showing the address bar, while saving precious screen space in mobile interfaces, was likely to make people’s awareness and understanding of URLs even worse.
This year, those UX designers’ chickens came home to roost. One of my brightest students this semester thanked me after I taught a lesson based on a chapter of my dissertation. I didn’t know about URLs before this lesson, she told me. I’ll start looking for the address bar at the top of the page.
I became the living embodiment of the scream emoji.
Extremely Online people of my generation learned about web addresses naturally in the course of our surfing the ‘net; if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to find anything we were looking for or share pages with our friends. Many of us learned how to make tweaks in the address bar to route around broken pages or supplement our Google Dorking. But not everyone was that web-savvy. And with the rise of app-based internet browsing, the “share” function on mobile, and that disappearing address bar, there are fewer moments where users have to interact with addresses to get around.
Digital security experts know that it’s still crucial for people to check addresses — for example, previewing a link in a stranger’s email to look for evidence that it’s suspicious. But it’s increasingly difficult to know what to tell people. The old “only trust .edu or .org websites” advice many teachers gave was never any good; there was always the possiblity that some university-based engineering professor was veering way out of their lane and ranting about white supremacy or vaccines causing autism on their university .edu website (this has happened more than once). Top-level domains have expanded in the past decade to the point where it’s almost even impossible to tell what’s a URL and what isn’t. Long gone are the days of “dot com” meaning “the Internet;” now websites can end in .click, .technology, .sucks, or any of an expanding range of random, corporate, or geographic handles (or collisions between corporate and geographic handles; things got heated in the fight between Jeff Bezos’s Amazon and people actually living in the region around the Amazon river over the .amazon domain, for example).
So I found it necessary to create animated gifs for educational resources I’ve edited in the past few years, explaining how to find and read URLs. I’m sharing them here, because I know I can’t be the only one struggling with how to talk to people about this crucial part of life online:
First, we’ve got to help people find where the web address actually is in their mobile browser:
Next, we need to provide a little support in reading what you can see in the address bar:
In case that last animation isn’t visible, it’s instructions on how to read a URL (web address), starting with https://, moving to the right until you see a slash (/), moving back to the left to find the first dot (.), then looking to the left and right of the dot. These are the parts of the address that matter — they tell you who actually owns that web address, which you can look up on a “who is” website like whoisology.com .
Anything before those last two parts of the address around the dot can be easily faked. Those earlier bits are the parts of the address that scammers mess around with, putting in official-looking things like irs.gov, Microsoft, chasebank, or other names of corporations, government offices, or things that might scare you or lure you into clicking (like “warning” or “settlement payment”).
I’ve been saying it for fifteen years: Address literacy is powerful literacy. It may seem like this stuff is just like the plumbing in your house — technical, complicated, it needs to just work, and it seems like someone else’s job to fix it when it doesn’t. But the internet isn’t just infrastructure. It’s crucial to free speech and other human rights at this point in history.
Learning how web addresses work should be part of basic literacy education, or at least civics. My one big regret is I haven’t made that case strongly enough to other educators.