.com keysWhen you talk about a URL, what do you say? Actually, before we even get to that, how do you say “URL”? I’ve already given my own answer away by writing “a URL” (yoo-arr-ell) rather than “an URL” (erl). Similarly, I make my living as an SEO (ess-ee-o) rather than a SEO (see-o).

Honestly, this interweb business is young enough that a lot of the terminology isn’t standardized, and similarly, many of the acronyms don’t have a set pronunciation. That will change with time, I’m sure. After all, nobody pronounces “scuba” (ess-see-yoo-bee-ay) — at least I hope not.

So, back to the question at hand: when you say a URL, just what do you say? Do you include all its parts, using the official generic syntax of scheme, authority, path, query, and fragment? Don’t be silly, of course you don’t.

As more and more people go online and become accustomed to these things, it’s become pretty standard to leave out the “http://”. Even the “www” (which really shouldn’t be necessary) is left out most of the time. Just look at an ad in print or on the eye of hell. The web site is usually just represented as domain.com. And you really can, in most cases, just type that into your browser’s location bar. The browser will go with the default protocol of http, and the server, when reached, will add a trailing slash and sometimes the www as well.

David LettermanOf course, there will always be exceptions, like this guy:

LETTERMAN: Can I just take a second here, Larry — I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt — to give our World Wide Web address. If people want to e-mail us, we’re on the World Wide Web as well.

KING: You are too? What is it?

LETTERMAN: wwwww.comcomcom — comcomdiggitydiggitydiggitydank.com –comdiggitywww.comdave.com. So give us some of that e-mail…

What about the directory or the file name? If you want to send someone to a document other than the home page, you have to go further than just the domain name, right? Nope. There are ways around that too.

CNN keeps their political news in a /politics/ directory, but apparently they were concerned that telling people to go to cnn dot com slash politics (which would end up taking them to http://www.cnn.com/POLITICS/ after the browser and the server had their way with the request) was asking too much of them, so they’ve made it easier. You can simply go to cnnpolitics dot com.

And what happens when you request that URL? Your browser adds the http://, so a request gets sent to the server at http://cnnpolitics.com. From there, you figure the server would tack on the www and the trailing slash, right?

Wrong again. The server responds with a status code of 302 (“found”) and redirects the request to http://www.cnn.com/politics/. So why tell people to go to the cnnpolitics.com domain? I suppose part of the reason is that they registered the domain name in order to keep anyone else from getting it, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that they chose to use it and redirect it to make things easier for the user. Apparently, it’s easier to communicate cnnpolitics dot com than cnn dot com slash politics, especially when it’s spoken rather than printed.

What can we take away from this? Apparently, it’s that slashes are problematic. Maybe that’s because a standard keyboard has two different kinds of slashes: the forward slash and the backslash. When a person says “slash,” they almost invariably mean the forward slash, but I suppose it could still cause some confusion. When I say “guitar,” do you think of an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, or what? Certainly, when the electric guitar was new to the world, “guitar” meant acoustic guitar, just like one used to be able to say “television” to mean a black and white television, then at some point one would specify “color television” for the new technology. Eventually, there would be a point at which you couldn’t just say “television” because you might have been referring to either color or black and white. Now, just about every television is color, so one can say “black and white television” and just “television” for color. And we’ll go through this again with digital, high definition, etc.

But with slashes, it seems that despite the fact that there’s a general understanding that “slash” means “forward slash,” it’s not understood widely enough, and some have decided to find ways around it. Hence, if you own enough domains, you don’t mind setting up redirects every time you publish a new document, and you don’t care about how hard your poor defenseless server has to work, you can just feed people domain names to direct them to your pages.

There’s another option out there, but it pretty much relies on people understanding what slashes are for and which ones are kosher on the web. Shell has been running spots on the eye of hell of late, promoting how hard they’re working to clean up the environment and find alternative, clean sources of energy. As if. Basically, it’s one of those “please don’t hate us, we need those enormous profits more than you know” campaigns.

At the end of the spot, they tell you to go to shell.com/us/realenergy for more information. That’s the URL you see on the screen, but the voiceover says, “shell dot com [pause] us [pause] realenergy.” Is that helpful? If you’re not looking at the screen when you hear this, will you know what to make of those pauses?

And what happens when you try to go to shell.com/us/realenergy?

HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
Server: Sun-ONE-Web-Server/6.1
Date: Mon, 07 Apr 2008 20:10:07 GMT
Content-length: 0
Content-type: text/html
Location: http://www.shell.com/us/realenergy

You get redirected to the URL with the www. From there…

HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
Server: Sun-ONE-Web-Server/6.1
Date: Mon, 07 Apr 2008 20:11:40 GMT
Content-length: 0
Content-type: text/html
Location: http://www.shell.com/us/realenergy/
Connection: close

You get the slash added at the end via a redirect. After that, you get a 200 response at the new URL, hit a bunch of JavaScript and then…

<meta http-equiv=”refresh” content=”1; URL=http://realenergy.shell.com/?lang=en&page=homeFlash”> </meta>

A meta refresh to a subdomain of shell.com, without the www, and with some personalization, based on a flash sniffer and most likely my IP address.

As it turns out, they could have told me to go to realenergy.shell.com (look mom, no slashes!), and I’d have ended up in the same place. But I suppose subdomains are even harder to communicate than any of that other stuff.

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