Google Chrome’s new beta features have been released revealing another possible step from Google to take the URL (the web address of any website, like google.com) off people’s eye. The last time Google attacked the URL, the web had to switch to HTTPS for the good, though. Things might not be that good this time when Google vs. the URL is back.
Google Chrome’s Dev and Canary 85 builds, which are beta versions of the browser reveal a feature that can potentially change how URLs look in your browser. If the feature is implemented in an upcoming Chrome update, people will see only the domain rather than the full URL.
For example, if you’re visiting a webpage with the URL
https://example.com/folder/page, you’ll be shown only
example.com part. To see the full URL, you’ll have to click on the URL bar (also called the Omnibar).
This isn’t surely a feature the netizens will like. Especially Web Developers. People might be switching to different browsers. Because it’s not the first time Chrome has messed up URLs. It’s just that the previous one hadn’t bigger effects.
There’s no official word from Google why it wants to show only the domain part of the URL. But reasons might be similar to what Google said when it first started tweaking the URL formatting in Chrome.
Which takes the story to 2019, when Chrome turned 10 and rolled out a similar update to Chrome that chopped off the URL prefixes (https:// and www.) from Chrome’s search bar (or Omnibox). Although Google claimed it made Chrome simpler and more accessible to the masses, web developers have had a hard time.
The prefix https:// is a sign that a website is safer and more private than one that begins with http://. Since most common people don’t know the difference and Google has always pressed upon “ making the internet more secure”, it replaced the two prefixes with “ Secure” or “ Not Secure” in the URL bar. “ Secure” means https and “ Not Secure” means HTTP.
What we get is what Google wants
And this is all good until Google’s intentions aren’t.
Google controls the web so much that it made almost all websites start using https. Because if one website doesn’t, Google will use its powers to limit the traffic to the site. Wondering what are these powers?
- Google started prioritising https pages in search results so much so that you can’t get visitors from Google search if your website is not “Secure”. And since Google is the biggest search engine of the planet, websites without an https prefix can’t thrive.
- And even if websites get some traffic from external sources, Chrome flashes a red full-screen warning in some HTTP sites telling it’s not secure. The option to visit anyway is hidden behind a link that reads “Advanced”, which in no ways seem to have it. This drives visitors away.
This was all about how Google can do what it can. But interrogation still remains why? Here are a few reasons to begin with:
Hard to read URL Formatting
Webpage URLs were simple as
https://example.com/page until sites started stuffing loads of parameters at the end of the URL, radically increasing its length.
Even Google’s own search results page URL character count ranges between hundreds.
Parameters are the portion of an URL that follows the
For example, for an eCommerce website a page URL could look like this:
http://www.example.com/items/women?category=shorts&color=blue. Here, part for the URL after the
color are parameters.
Parameters are mostly used for tracking where people are coming from. They are (mostly) meaningless strings of text and numbers that can be confusing.
That means one reason can be that URL formatting is hard to understand (or confusing) for humans especially people who aren’t much aware of these parameters. Chrome already highlights the domain part to look different from the rest of the URL.
URLs aren’t a good way to convey site identity
Chrome’s engineering manager, Adrienne Porter Felt told WIRED, “People have a really hard time understanding URLs”. And this complexity of URLs also confuses people on which part of it should be trusted.
She says “… in general I don’t think URLs are working as a good way to convey site identity.”
I agree with her here, though. Because URLs are just web addresses. You don’t identify Google by its address: 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway in Mountain View, California, United States. You do it by the Google logo. So why should you identify Google by google.com?
But this doesn’t mean google.com should be removed from sight, the same way Google’s physical address isn’t removed.
Porter says, “So we want to move toward a place where web identity is understandable by everyone–they know who they’re talking to when they’re using a website and they can reason about whether they can trust them. But this will mean big changes in how and when Chrome displays URLs.”
Long and senseless URLs have one more concern. They help cyber criminals who build malicious sites to exploit users’ confusion. These crooks can imitate websites of legitimate institutions, launch phishing schemes, hawk malicious downloads, and run phoney web services–all because it’s difficult for web users to keep track of who they’re dealing with.
Will Hiding URL Solve The Problems?
If URLs can’t convey site identity, hiding a part of them won’t do any good too. But it is a small step in a greater plan that aims to fully hide URLs from people’s eye.
Remember the URL prefix hiding story? Google, then, also used to hide prefixes like m. from domains. Like
m.facebook.com will be shown as
facebook.com, which is sensible because m.facebook.com is just the mobile version of facebook.com. But following this,
m.tumblr.com, a user-generated site in Tumblr, will also be shown as
tumblr.com when it isn’t.
There are a lot of sites that let users have a subdomain. Like Substack, WordPress, Wix, etc. This means you can go to WordPress or Substack and create a free website named anyname.wordpress.com. And Google Chrome will show it as WordPress.com.
Similar problems will occur if Google brings this full URL hiding feature out of beta to Chrome. Take Medium for example. Medium lets writers create publications the URL of which is of the form
medium.com/PublicationName. But with Chrome full URL hiding feature, it will be shown as
medium.com. This can cause two problems:
- If a Medium publication published good content, the publication will not get the credits as the URL will show only Medium, not the publication’s name.
- If a Medium publication publishes offensive, or false content, and readers will see Medium.com on the URL bar, they will be much less likely to visit Medium again. This will ruin Medium’s reputation.
Thus, URL hiding can be problematic on its own.
If not URL, the what?
Another thing to take a note of is that if URLs are removed something has to take its place to let users browse. Maybe a Google search bar?
Porter Felt says, “… the group notes that the goal isn’t to upend URLs haphazardly but to enhance a vision that is already in place, given that entity identification is foundational to the overall security model of the web.”
When an article from WIRED titled “ Google Wants to Kill the URL” hit the web, Porter Felt, the one whose words were in the article, tweeted:
You can’t have a sure word on it yet. Maybe Google changes its mind to let the URL live and find some other way to convey site identity and security status. Or maybe Google pushes this update and after a week or two of frustration, people start adopting (and maybe liking) this way of the Internet.
Both ways, one thing is sure. Google has its legs spread everywhere on the Internet and we lack serious competition very much in Search Engines.
Maybe Chrome will use Machine Learning to figure out which sites are genuine and which aren’t. And instead of the URL bar, all you will have will be your browser telling you which sites to visit and which to not.
Would you like that?
PS: I asked Google to tell what their main motive behind hiding the full URL is and what can possibly replace the URL bar. I also asked them how they’re going to solve the confusion problem that the hidden URL will cause. I haven’t yet got any update, though. I’ll update the article when I get one. You can subscribe to the Theciva newsletter to get notified when that happens.
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