The BBC Backstage mailing list has briefly turned its attention from the iPlayer’s DRM and Ashley Highfield’s estimates of Linux usage and is actually having an interesting conversation about URL schemes.
Long-time readers might remember that I’m interested in the problems that people have with URLs, so you won’t be surprised that this discussion piqued my interest.
The first interesting point that was raised was that URL-shortening services like TinyURL can be used to disguise dubious addresses in a phishing attack. When clicking on links in mail it’s always a good idea to ensure that you know which site the link is taking you too. URL-shortening services prevent you from doing this as the URL you see it is to, for example, tinyurl.com. It’s unlikely, of course, that anyone wants to get your login details to the BBC archive trial, but it’s certainly a bad habit for an organisation like the BBC to be encouraging.
The main point, for me, of a URL shortening service is that it’s an easy way to share URLs from sites that have nasty addressing schemes which lead to unmanageably long URLs – like the URLs created by most e-commerce and content management systems (or, at least, most of the ones that I see being used). It’s just a fact of internet life that you often want to share a URL which is far too long for sane people to deal with. And URL-shortening services are perfect for cases like that. You can shorten a long URL to a short link that won’t get broken by your friends’ email program.
But I see that as a solution to a temporary problem. As some point in the future, we will no longer have unmanageably long URLs. Everyone designing URL schemes will understand how they should work and no-one will encode session information in URLs. Well, I can dream can’t I?
More practically, URL-shortening is a solution to the problem of sharing problematic URLs when you have no control over the URL scheme in question. In other words, the problem of sharing other people’s URLs. If you’re trying to share one of your own URLs and you find yourself wanting to use a URL shortening service, then perhaps you should be reconsidering your URL scheme.
And that’s why I don’t think that the BBC should be using things like TinyURL. They shouldn’t need to as they control the URLs that they are sharing. Personally I think that the two URLs in question are pretty good URLs. They are both easily readable and they aren’t too long. Oh, you can make picky suggestions for improving them (I’d want to lose the ‘2’ from ‘login2.shtml’ at least) but they are a vast improvement over most of the URLs you see out on the web. But if however composed the email thought that they were too long to include, then they should have fixed the URLs rather than resorting to TinyURL. I realise that in an organisation like the BBC getting the relevant web server configuration in place might take time, but that’s just another argument for getting your URL scheme right from the start.
Your URLs are your address on the web. They are how people find the information that you want to share with them. It’s well worth putting some effort into them.