All recommendations lead back to Cool URIs

I’ve spent much of the day trawling through the list of resources that JISC provided in the briefing paper for the Information Environment programme call last year (i.e. the programme that is funding this project). There’s a lot of really well articulated and useful reports and blog posts that have been written over the last few years, but having reached the end of the list, it feels to me like there’s been a lot of repetition, too, and it can be summarised by the following:

Right now, my own thinking about this project is that we simply have to articulate Cool URIs in a way that is meaningful and useful to our organisation. That’s all. The manifesto and technical specification have been written.

The Importance of the URI

During the course of Linking You we’ve spent a lot of time looking at URI structures and how they could be improved to variously be faster to type, easier to guess and clearer to understand. We’ve have a peek at hierarchical structures and flat structures, and we’ve debated if people need to know what “socs” means, and if it’s better or worse than “computing”. The thing which amazed me most, however, was when we sat down with a few people and had a discussion about how a new URI structure could click with a proposed redevelopment. One line of conversation stood out for me:

Are addresses even important? Surely we’ll just tell everyone to go to and click from there.

This concerned me enough that I felt the need to write a quick post about it.

A URI can technically be used purely as a ‘click to’ point on the internet. There’s nothing stopping us putting a page on courses in the School of Computing at You plug it into a link, people click the link and off you go. Technically this is sound, but only in the same sense that you can technically address a letter to something like “10, SW1A 2AA” ((If you’re not up to speed on your postcodes, it’s 10 Downing Street)). Yes it’s compact and yes it works, but it conveys absolutely nothing in terms of context. It’s also a real pain to remember, and requires you to use additional bits of your brain if you’re ever writing it down for later reference or typing it into a browser address bar.

Imagine for a second that we send out a prospectus with the following:

Find out more about Computing at

And then compare it with a ‘human’ address:

Find out more about Computing at

Now, try to remember the first one without looking at it.

I rest my case.

The Evolution of the Address Bar

In the early browsers the address bar was simply a box where users typed the address of the webpage they needed to get to and then clicked a large ‘go’ button.  As browsers developed so did the functionality of the address bar, one of the basic updates came with browsers remembering the viewing history of the user.  When a user wanted to go back to a site they had visited in the past the browser began to recognise the URL as it was typed from the history and returned suggestions.

FireFox 2 Address Bar
FireFox 2 Address Bar

Recently web development has been shifting with the new technologies that are being developed; new standards such as HTML5 and CSS3 mixed with the increased use AJAX techniques all meant that browsers had to shift and change to keep up with them.  On of the major changes that came into the browser around the shift of web 2.0 was a major update to how users use the  address bar.

The update of the address bar between FireFox 2 and FireFox 3 wasn’t just in the change of name (unofficially known as the ‘Awesome Bar’) or change in design. The address bar became more of a global search of your browser based upon the user’s bookmarks and page history, matching words and phrases to text within URLs, page titles and tags on the page, not just from the beginning of the URL, but text that appears throughout the URL.  The results returned were then ranked in the address bar drop-down based upon ‘frecency’ – a mixture between the most frequency viewed pages and the recency of visiting the suggested page.

FireFox 3
FireFox 3 Awesome Bar

This feature has been adapted and brought across to the other main browsers, Google implements a similar technique in Chrome’s ‘Onmibox’ however also expanding this functionality across to the user’s search history, as well as opening up the Omnibox API, allowing developers to write their own plugins to expand the address bar function further.

Furthermore the address bar is not just about remembering the history of the user, Chrome started to implement the ability to search the internet straight from the address bar, bypassing the Google homepage. This combined with several existing features allowed Chrome to firsly suggest popular searches through Google Suggest ( and suggest previous searches from the user’s history ( This provision means that some users have privacy concerns as companies such as Google log the search queries, as a result Chrome has implemented incognito browser, in FireFox known as Private Browsing, which prevents these logs and many other things from being created.

During the production of FireFox 3 Mozilla’s Mike Beltzner said:

“I confidently predict that the Awesome Bar is going to change the way people navigate the web…”

Within comments on a blog post by a developer at Mozilla relating to the the beta release of FireFox 3 specifically about the Awesome Bar, users were stating just how much it had changed how they use their browsers:

“Yes, I’ve found the biggest advantage is that you don’t have to redo web searches that you did before. And if you do want to redo a web search, you can just type in one or two of the keywords and firefox will find the search page in your history. Wonderful!” – David Nelson

“I have been using Firefox 3 since the first beta and after I type two or three letters in the URL bar, the page I want is usually in the top three results.” – Neelark

“AwesomeBar really made my life easier, no need to open bookmark, no need to search for history. Just simply type and enter.” – Karbonfootprint

The practical consequences of these developments in the address bar is that users no longer need to remember full URLs, instead users can simply remember keywords within the URL, page title, or similar and then use the address bar to get to the page they had been on.

The implications of this for those building sitemaps is that URL design and query strings need to contain useful and meaningful information that relates to the page content.  For example acronyms that may mean something to internal staff, outside to the average user the acronyms are rarely memorable to external users.

Running through the list of URLs that Alex Bilbie posted ( there are many URLs that make little sense to external users such as  The sections in this domain that are most likely to be picked up for searching is ‘lincoln’ and ‘cjmh’, while almost certain the ‘lincoln’ element will be remembered, the ‘cjmh’ will not.  Additionally the page heading –  Criminal Justice and Mental Health, isn’t included in the page title, meaning that all the advantages of the Awesome Bar remembering keywords in the URL, title, etc are lost. The URL and the page title, held within the HTML <title> tag, has to reflect the page content, allowing the user to benefit from the new features of the evolved address bar.

Further Reading:

BBC Online Strategy

In February 2010, BBC Online sumbitted it’s response to the BBC Strategy (read: budget) Review, announced the summer before.

Along with committing to reducing it’s budget by 25% by 2013, they’ve committed to halving the number of top-level directories# (i.e. anything that falls after, such as /eastenders or /drwho). The BBC currently has over 400# of these top-level directories (not including redirects) and by the end of this year, 172# will be shut down with their content moved to other areas of the site or archived offline.

The new online strategy focuses on doing “fewer things better” and they plan on grouping online content into one of ten categories:

Noticeable changes will include programmes no longer having their own top-level directory, for example Eastenders will move from to Likewise and will probably become which will then link off to CBBC/CBeebies and teaching material such as Bitesize from the Knowledge and Learning product.

There’s already been some lively discussion on the issues around deleting and archiving BBC websites facing removal that kicked off with an initial post from Adactio blogger Jeremy Keith. He suggested that the BBC’s plans to halve its top level directories were cultural vandalism. The tenor of the criticism was the same – that the BBC is failing in its duty to preserve a record of its online past. Some sites, like which is a collection of 47,000 memories and 15,000 image created by people who lived through World War 2, has been debated heavily of something that should be preserved regardless of it’s age or irrelevance to the BBC’s new strategy simply because of it’s historical and cultural value to people around the world.

This massive re-organisation that BBC Online are currently undertaking is very similar to our Linking You project; as we have discovered so far, higher education institution’s websites (including our own) have also over the years become monolithic beasts. I think for the BBC, with the huge success of iPlayer and the huge increase in second screen viewing (e.g. chatting to your friends on Facebook whilst watching TV) has made the BBC realise that they need to wake up a bit and envelop themselves in the digital age. This quote below by Erik Huggers (director of BBC Future Media and Technology) particularly emphasises the point:

“The BBC’s online strategy has, for many years, been to play a supporting role to our broadcast output. Programme first, website later. This is not the best way to deliver our public purposes in a digital age.” #

Likewise universities are slowly realising that their primary audiences (i.e. students) aren’t living in a world of paper handouts and prospectuses any more; they’re connected 24/7 and want real time, personalised content. In age of increased tuition fees, potential students are going to be more interested in HE websites that suggest courses to them based on the things they’ve “liked” on Facebook and email you a personalised prospectus, versus those institutions that ask for their address so they can send them a massive document in the post a fortnight later.

The recent redesign of University of Lincoln’s homepage has already started the process of culling unnecessary links and the grouping of content into, not products, but areas of interest:

In terms of a URI model this could easily convert into:

/schools (or /departments)

and maybe a few others such as:


From this BBC debate I think the thing that we’ve got to consider as we develop a model for HE websites is that we are going to have to make sacrifices because physical value does not necessarily represent value on the web (e.g. a University may stand by it’s vice chancellor’s vision but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily worth being a top-level directory on a HE website at /vc_message). Also we need to work out exactly what elements a university is made up such as courses, faculties, accommodation information and then try to fit it into a group of core categories (similar to the BBC’s “online products”).