Issue No. 01 - January/February (2006 vol. 23)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MS.2006.7
Warren Harrison , Portland State University
In days long ago, when you opened a Web page, it very concretely mapped to a specific file, located at a specific place in your file system. For example, in 1996, if you had opened up my home page at www.cs.pdx.edu/~warren/index.html, your client would have asked my server to deliver the contents of the file at /u/home/warren/public_html/index.html. However, the Internet has since moved from small collections of personal Web pages, carefully crafted in native HTML by computing enthusiasts using vi, to organizations trying to manage hundreds if not thousands of documents. Not surprisingly, this approach didn't scale.
Content management systems
The software industry—always eager to make a buck, always looking for vacuums in the "better mousetrap" space—answered this question by producing content management systems. With CMSs, you no longer have to painfully type your content into a file with HTML tags. Your content doesn't even have to be in a file—you can just populate some fields in a database, and pow! The CMS produces a Web page on the fly that looks just like ones handcrafted by humans. A Web page generator takes an index into the database (say, a totally meaningless string like XPLMKJH), retrieves the content for that index, and uses it to populate the Web page it's going to create. Literally dozens of such systems exist; a list of open source CMSs can be found at www.la-grange.net/cms.
This is a really slick solution for Web sites that have lots of frequently changing items without a huge amount of unique content. For instance, online catalogs might contain a stock number, a description, and a price for each item. It seems pointless to create a separate HTML file for each item; it makes much more sense to add this entry to a database and then just extract these items and display them on a preformatted Web layout.
URLs of mystery
This approach has led to what I call "URLs of mystery." In the simplest example, the URL consists of the name of the Web page generator (say a CGI or PHP application), followed by a parameter listing the database index—for instance, www.servestuff.com/buildpage?index= XPLMKJH. The main problem with this is that you really can't tell what's on that page by just looking at the URL. So if I bookmark that link, when I return the next day to see what I bought the night before, how do I know what this jumble of characters points to?
As we all know, the answer is the page title—the string in the upper-left-hand corner of your browser that should be populated from the content database to identify the page contents. The title gets saved in your bookmarks along with the URL, theoretically making it easy to figure out which URL points where. However, page titles aren't always as helpful as you might think. One of my frequent online shopping sites lists just the company's name in the title for every item you display, so at the end of the day you end up with a list of bookmarks that all have the same title and an undecipherable URL.
Email me a URL, go ahead, I dare you!
One of my favorite pastimes is emailing friends URLs of pages I happen to come across while browsing the Web. In Mozilla (my browser of choice), it's easy enough: simply right-click on the page and select "send link." My email client generates a message containing the URL to the page in question and gives me an opportunity to add some notes before sending it off to the lucky recipient.
However, as CMSs have become more ubiquitous, this has become harder and harder to do. Recently, I tried to send a potential author a link to our Author Guide. Shockingly, the URL on that page—www.computer.org/portal/site/software/menuitem.538c87f5131e26244955a4108bcd45f3/index.jsp?&pName=software_level1&path=software/content&file=write_for.xml&xsl=article.xsl&—is 170 characters long. Most mail clients end up wrapping the URL across several lines on the receiving end, requiring the recipient to do major surgery on the string just to load the page. Oddly enough, the file this monstrosity points to is actually located at www.computer.org/portal/pages/software/content/write_for.html—still 61 characters long, but that's a far cry from 170!
Why should we care?
Most organizations that use CMSs find that viral marketing is an important part of their business strategy. Viral marketing is the high-tech version of "word of mouth." I find something about your Web page I like, I send it to three friends, they each send it to three of their friends, and before you know it, that one page view has resulted in dozens, if not hundreds, of page views.
What happens to this concept if I end up having to email a 170-character URL to my three friends? Maybe one of them chooses to do the surgery and stitch the URL back together, but of course their three friends get the URL wrapped across three lines as well. And maybe none of them feel like doing URL surgery. Your message is lost.
Many Web site publishers obviously recognize this. It's pretty common to see a link that says "send this URL to a friend." Well, fine then. Maybe I'll go to the trouble of filling in the form that pops up when I press that button—maybe (with Amazon.com I actually have to sign into their secure server with my email address and password, and navigate several different pages just to send a page to a friend). And maybe my friend's spam filter will accept that message from honestjoes.com that contains the URL I just caused to be sent—maybe. And maybe my friend will open that message, even though it's from someone they've never heard of before—maybe. But I wouldn't want to bet my business on any of these.
How do your users use your application?
The moral to this story is that designers often get wrapped up in technical decisions and believe they won't affect system users, but they're wrong. There are plenty of examples of these user-unfriendly CMSs out there. For example, one e-commerce site I visited recently when looking for a pair of binoculars fills my browser's address field with the following URL: www.cheaperthandirt.com/ctd/mixeddept.asp?dept%5Fid=18&dept%5Fname=Optics&mscssid=3NBQD1X9XJ4J8K9SGE5MHECDBHNH66S2. When shopping for a Christmas gift for my wife, Amazon.com returned this unintelligible 117-character URL: www.amazon.com/gp/product/0452283442/qid=1133738553/sr=8-2/ref=pd_bbs_2/104-6933329-0354319?n=507846&s=books&v=glance. A link on Scientific American's Web site promising to tell me how GPS devices work looks like this: www.sciam.com/askexpert_question.cfm?articleID=000349D4-D6FC-1CFC-93F6809EC5880000&catID=3&chanID=sa005. If I want to check out what eBay is auctioning in the way of Macintosh computers, the 133-character URL to get me there is computers.listings.ebay.com/Apple-Macintosh-Computers_W0QQfromZR4QQsacatZ4599QQsocmdZListingItemListQQssPageNameZdcpComputersTextFeat.
Do these URLs have to be this long? Given today's content management systems, unfortunately the answer appears to be "yes." But with some judicious design decisions, we can minimize gratuitous URL padding.
More friendly URLs
To illustrate, let's dissect the Author Guide URL I mentioned earlier: www.computer.org/portal/site/software/menuitem.538c87f5131e26244955a4108bcd45f3/index.jsp?&pName=software_level1&path=software/content&file=write_for.xml&xsl=article.xsl&. How many choices did this site's designers have when laying out the content architecture? The first thing that jumps out at me is the choice of a directory structure that's four levels deep. Is it necessary to partition the content into separate directories? I don't know. It's probably important to separate IEEE Software articles from those in IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, but does "portal" really need subdirectories?
The second thing is the obvious selection of a 128-bit hash of (I assume) the file name so you end up with a unique string for each file and avoid collisions. But was it necessary to append "menuitem" to that mess? It's also good to remember here that if someone is inclined to stitch your URL back together, the place where humans have the most trouble is in reassembling random collections of characters. Guess where my email client breaks the URL when it receives it.
Once you get past the hash, we see that the Web page generator (index.jsp) is being sent four parameters: name, path, file, and xsl. How many of these are necessary? Can't the server be configured to default to an "index" page? The URL has already placed us in the "software" directory; do we need a "path" parameter? How about "xsl"? A quick look at the Web site shows that almost all content seems to have an "xsl" of "article.xsl." Is this really necessary?
Contrast this URL (and the other URLs I listed earlier) with the URL to a PC Magazine review of a laptop I am evaluating: www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,1889060,00.asp. This is simplicity itself. Only 44 characters, and of that 13 of them are for the site's domain name.
Making implementation decisions
I teach my students that when designing systems, there are requirements, constraints, and goals. Requirements are those things that can be articulated and that a system must have. Constraints limit the designers' freedom in meeting the requirements. Because both requirements and constraints can be articulated, you can tell if they're there or not. Saying that a CMS must load a Web page from a MySQL database is a requirement (with a constraint thrown in)—I can come up with a test case to make sure it works and check to make sure you're using MySQL.
On the other hand, goals are those amorphous properties that we just can't (or aren't willing to) spec out. Things like making a system fast, reliable, or … easy to use. Goals are like pornography: I know it when I see it. But goals also provide a basis for decision-making. If the system can be developed in one of two ways and still meet the requirements, goals tell us which way is right. Goals should help us decide if we should stick our content four levels deep, repeat information in URL parameters we already have, and append invariant nine-character strings to 32-bit hashes to construct a 41-character identifier. A system may meet the requirements, but what about the goals?
Producing short URLs
If you've got an unwieldy URL you want to send to people, what can you do about it? Well, there are several excellent resources out there to solve the problem for users. For example, TinyURL (tinyurl.com) will create a short URL from a long one. The 133-character eBay URL I mentioned earlier can be compressed to simply tinyurl.com/dudfe. The 170-character IEEE Software Author Guide URL is tinyurl.com/9kymy. You can even add tinyurl to your toolbar in some browsers so that you can compress URLs without going to the tinyurl site. Other URL converters include www.digbig.com, shorl.com, and www.snipurl.com. These are convenient solutions to what is becoming a common problem with modern content management systems.
What do you think? Do URLs of mystery frustrate you as much as they do me? Are there other solutions to this problem I am missing? Please write me at email@example.com.