Is the URL headed for the endangered technology list?

Jeremiah Owyang, Senior Analyst, Social Computing, Forrester Research, tweeted recently on the subject of Chrome, Google's new open source browser.

Jeremiah postulates:

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

That's an interesting prediction, predicated on the ability of a browser translate search terms into destinations on the Internet. Farfetched? Not at all. After all, there already exists a layer of obfuscation between a URL and an Internet destination; one that translates host names into IP addresses, hiding the complexity and difficult in remembering IP addresses from the end-user. And apparently Chrome is already well on its way to sending URLs the way of the dodo bird, otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation.

But IP addresses, though obfuscated and hidden from view for most folks, aren't an anachronism any more than the engine of car. Its complexity, too, is hidden from view and concern for most folks. We don't need to know how the engine gets started, just that turning the key will get it started. In similar fashion, most folks don't need to know how clicking on a particular URL gets them to the right place, they just need to know to click on it.

Operating technology doesn't necessarily require understanding of how it works, and the layer of abstraction we place atop technology to make it usable by the majority doesn't necessarily make the underlying technology an anachronism, although in this case Jeremiah may be right - at least from the view point that using URLs as a navigation mechanism may become an anachronism. URLs will still be necessary, they are a part of the foundation of how the web works. But IP addresses are also necessary, and so is the technology that bridges the gap between IP addresses and host names, namely DNS.

More interesting, I think, is that Jeremiah is looking into his crystal ball and seeing the first stages of Web 3.0, where context and content is the primary vehicle that drives your journey through the web rather than a list of hyperlinks. Where SEO is king, and owning a keyword will be as important, if not more so, than brand. The move to a semantic web necessarily eliminates the importance of URLs as a visible manifestation, but not as the foundational building blocks of how that web is tied together.

To be fair to other browsers, the address bar in FireFox 3 also acts like a search bar. If I type in my name, it automatically suggests several sites tied to my identity, and takes me by default to this blog. Similarly a simple search for "big-ip" automatically takes me to F5's product page on BIG-IP. That's because my default search engine is Google, and it's taking me to the first ranked page for the search results. This isn't Web 3.0, not yet, but it's one of the first visible manifestations we have of what the web will eventually become.

That's what I mean about keywords becoming the new brand. Just as "bandaid", which is really a brand name, became a term used to describe all bandages, the opposite will happen - and quickly - in a semantic web where keywords and phrases are automatically translated into URLs. SEO today understands the importance of search terms and keywords, but it's largely a supporting cog in a much larger wheel of marketing efforts. That won't be true when search really is king, rather than just the crown prince.

But URLs will still be necessary. After all, the technology that ties keywords and search terms to URLs requires that URLs exist in the first place, and once you get to a site you still have to navigate it. So while I'm not convinced that URLs will become a complete anachronism, they may very well become virtualized.

Just like everything else today.

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Published Sep 04, 2008
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