What is a URL? Everything You Need to Know

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What is a URL? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

What is a URL?

Have you ever wondered how the internet knows where to take you when you type a web address into your browser? The answer lies in the URL, or Uniform Resource Locator, which is the foundation of every website, web page, and online document.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about URLs, from their components to best practices and beyond.

Summary

  • A URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is the address of a website on the Internet. It’s what you type into the address bar of your browser.
  • An example of a URL is https://softwarelab.org/, which is the address for our website (the one you’re on right now).
  • The main purpose of a URL is to provide a direct link for users to quickly and easily access a web page, or document on the internet.

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Understanding URLs

A URL, or Uniform Resource Locator, can be thought of as a web address. It helps you access a website, web page, or document on the internet. Uniform resource locators are like digital street addresses for resources on the World Wide Web.

A typical HTTP URL consists of multiple components, including the network communication protocol (HTTP or HTTPS), a subdomain, a domain name, and its extension. These components work together to ensure that your web browser can locate and display the desired resource.

Web Addresses Explained

When you want to access a resource on the internet, you typically enter the URL, also known as an internet address, into the address bar of your browser. This web address contains all the necessary information for the browser to locate the desired resource on a web server, such as a specific web page, video, or audio document. For example, a complete URL like “http://www.example.com/page.html” tells your browser to use the HTTP protocol, connect to the domain “www.example.com,” and request the page named “page.html.”

There are two main types of URLs: absolute and relative. An absolute URL contains all the components needed to locate a specific resource on the internet, while a relative URL only contains the path to the resource and relies on the current page’s protocol and domain name to complete the address. For instance, “/images/photo.jpg” is a relative URL that would be combined with the current domain to create the full URL, such as “http://www.example.com/images/photo.jpg.”

Components of a URL

Now that we know what a URL is, let’s dive deeper into its individual components. A URL consists of the protocol, domain name, domain extension, path to the resource, and parameters. Each component plays a crucial role in locating resources on the internet, and understanding their function can help you better navigate the web.

In the following sections, we’ll explore each of these components in more detail.

Protocols: HTTP and HTTPS

When it comes to web communication, protocols are essential. HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) and HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) are the two major protocols for communication between web servers and web browsers. They are used to facilitate secure and reliable data transfer. These protocols define how data is exchanged between a client (your web browser) and a server (a remote computer hosting a website). While HTTP is the most common protocol, HTTPS is considered more secure due to its encrypted data transmission, making it the preferred choice for sensitive information like online transactions and login credentials. The default port number for HTTPS is 443.

Other protocols you might encounter include FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and mailto (used for email links). In a URL, the protocol is followed by a colon and two forward slashes (://), which separates it from the rest of the address components. For example, “http://www.example.com” and “http://www.example.com” both use different protocols but point to the same domain name.

Domain Names and Extensions

Domain names are the unique names that identify websites on the internet. They serve as a human-friendly alternative to IP addresses, which are a series of numbers used to identify computers and web servers on a network. In a URL, the domain name is followed by a domain extension, which is the part that comes after the last dot, such as “.com”, “.org”, or “.net”. Domain extensions, also known as Top-Level Domains (TLDs), help identify the type or location of a website.

To obtain a custom domain name, you’ll need to register it through a domain registrar, which is a company that manages the reservation of domain names on your behalf. Once you’ve registered a domain name, you can use it as the basis for your website’s URL, making it easily accessible to users around the world.

Paths and Resource Locations

The path in a URL is the folder structure that appears to the right of the domain extension, directing the web server to the specific resource being requested. It provides additional information to web servers and can have multiple levels, such as “/folder/subfolder/page.html”. The path is an essential component of a URL, as it tells the server which file or page to serve to the user.

File extensions in URLs, such as “.html”, “.php”, or “.jpg”, indicate the type of file being requested, helping both the server and the web browser understand how to handle the resource. In the example URL “http://www.example.com/page.html”, the path “/page.html” directs the server to deliver an HTML file named “page.”

Parameters and Query Strings

Parameters, also known as query strings, are additional pieces of information added to the end of a URL to direct the server to perform specific tasks or provide extra data. In the context of a query string, these parameters are separated from the rest of the URL by a question mark (?) and consist of key-value pairs connected by an equal sign (=). For example, in the URL “http://www.example.com/search?query=example”, the parameter “query=example” tells the server to perform a search for the term “example”.

Multiple parameters can be used in a single URL, with each additional parameter separated by an ampersand (&). For example, “http://www.example.com/search?query=example&page=2” includes two parameters: “query=example” and “page=2”, directing the server to perform a search for the term “example” and display the second page of results.

Types of URLs: Absolute and Relative

As mentioned earlier, there are two main types of URLs: absolute and relative. An absolute URL, also known as a url address, is a complete web address that includes all the components needed to locate a specific resource on the internet, such as the protocol, domain name, path, and parameters. Absolute URLs are self-contained and can be used independently to access resources.

On the other hand, relative URLs only contain the path to the resource and rely on the current page’s protocol and domain name to complete the address. These URLs are typically used when linking to resources within the same domain, as they make it easier to manage internal links and reduce the overall length of the URL.

For example, a relative URL like “/about.html” would be combined with the current domain (e.g., “http://www.example.com”) to create the full URL “http://www.example.com/about.html.”

Locating URLs in Web Browsers

URLs are an integral part of browsing the internet, and they can be found in various locations within web browsers on desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. The most common URL is the browser address bar, also known as the omnibox, which is typically at the top of your browser window.

This is where you can view the website url of the current web page, enter new URLs to visit, and even perform searches using your preferred search engine.

Opening and Accessing URLs

There are several ways to open and access URLs on the internet. The most straightforward method is to type the URL directly into the address bar of your browser. However, if you don’t know the complete URL, you can also use search engines to find the desired web page or resource.

Additionally, you can access URLs by clicking or tapping on hyperlinks found on web pages, in emails, or within other applications.

Creating Custom URLs

If you’re interested in creating a unique URL for your website, the first step is to register a domain name through a reputable domain registrar. These companies manage the reservation of domain names on your behalf, ensuring that your chosen domain name is unique and not already in use by another website.

Once you’ve registered your domain name, you can use it as the basis for your custom URLs, making your website easily accessible to users around the world.

URL Design Best Practices

When designing URLs for your website, it’s essential to follow best practices to ensure that they are user-friendly and easily discoverable by search engines. Some key principles of URL design include using semantic URLs with words that have inherent meaning, avoiding spaces and special characters, and using lowercase letters.

By adhering to these best practices, you can create URLs that are both easy to read and understand, improving the overall user experience and increasing the likelihood of your website being discovered through search engine results.

Special URLs: Internationalized and Protocol-Relative

In addition to the standard URLs discussed earlier, there are also special types of URLs known as internationalized and protocol-relative URLs. Internationalized URLs are designed to include Unicode characters, allowing for the use of non-ASCII characters in domain names and paths. To accommodate these special characters, the domain name is converted to punycode (using the “xn--” prefix), and the path name is converted to UTF-8 encoding.

Protocol-relative URLs, on the other hand, are URLs that do not specify a particular protocol (like HTTP or HTTPS) and instead adapt to the protocol of the current page. For example, a protocol-relative URL like “//www.example.com/image.jpg” would use the same protocol (HTTP or HTTPS) as the current page, ensuring that the resource is loaded securely if the current page is using HTTPS.

URL vs. URI: What’s the Difference?

While the terms URL and URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) are often used interchangeably, they do have some differences. A URL is a complete web address that includes all the components required to locate a specific resource on the internet, such as a website, web page, or image.

A URI, on the other hand, is a string of characters used to identify a resource over a network, regardless of its location or method of retrieval. In other words, a URL is a specific type of URI that provides both the name and location of a resource on the internet.

Examples of URIs include mailto:example@example.com (an email address) and urn:0-486-27557-4 (an ISBN number).

Summary

In conclusion, understanding URLs and their components is essential for navigating the internet and creating user-friendly, discoverable websites. By learning about the different components of a URL, such as the protocol, domain name, path, and parameters, as well as the various types of URLs (absolute, relative, internationalized, and protocol-relative), you can better comprehend how the internet locates and delivers resources to users around the world. By following URL design best practices and understanding the difference between URLs and URIs, you can ensure that your website stands out in the vast digital landscape and provides a seamless experience for your visitors.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

What is an example of a URL?

What is a URL of a website?

A URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is the address of a website on the Internet. It’s what you type into the address bar of your web browser to get to a specific page. Every website has its own unique URL that points to the location of the site.

How do I find my URL?

Finding your URL is easy and straightforward. On any device, simply go to the page you want to find the URL for and copy it from the address bar at the top of the browser window. The URL can then be pasted into an email or document for easy access later on.

Is URL the same as a web address?

Yes, a URL and a web address are the same thing. The URL is a string of characters that contains information about the page location, including the protocol (i.e., http or https) and domain name. It is also known as a web address and used to locate and access a specific webpage.

What is the main purpose of a URL?

The main purpose of a URL is to provide a direct link for users to quickly and easily access a website, web page, or document on the internet.

This makes it easier for users to find the information they need without having to search through multiple pages or websites. It also helps search engines index websites and webpages more efficiently.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor has tested 39 antivirus programs and 30 VPN services, and holds a Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate from Stanford University.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.