What’s in an URI?

One thing that I find constantly annoying is the inability of major newspaper websites to have human-friendly URIs. The URI (unified resource identifier) is the „web address“ you see in your browser’s navigation bar. It can be very simple and easy to remember, post, share and type, like „nytimes.com“, or it can be so inexplicably long and ugly like this one, linking to an article about Google’s problems in China at the German daily „FAZ“:

http://www.faz.net/s/RubDDBDABB9457A437BAA85A49C26FB23A0/Doc~E9F73DC4F0C444FE4BA1181212F925369~ATpl~Ecommon~Scontent.html

Three things are wrong with an URI like that. 1) it is too long for no good reason 2) it makes no sense to a human and 3) it is systematically unsustainable. Let’s continue this little survey through the German newspaper landscape. The other major newspaper is the „Sueddeutsche Zeitung“.

This article about the upcoming Afghanistan conference is a step ahead of the FAZ:

http://www.sueddeutsche.de/,tt3m1/politik/790/501051/text/

It is considerably shorter, and the „/politik/“ tells the reader just from the URI which section/topic he might be dealing with. But still the majority of this URI’s elements make little sense and one wonders why there is a comma in it for example, the FAZ’s URI even had a „tilde“ (~), which I thought went out of fashion at the end of the 90s. Kudos to the „TAZ“, which comes close to a URI that I would not complain about, in an article on the world social forum:

http://taz.de/1/politik/amerika/artikel/1/verfechter-des-diffusen-und-bunten/

The URI makes sense to a human, is (aside from the two 1s, which I cannot explain) free of any shenanigans and is bearably short. The Financial Times Germany („FTD“) leaves mixed feelings, in their article on Lafontaine’s latest career choice:

http://www.ftd.de/politik/deutschland/:lafontaines-rueckzug-eine-chance-fuer-links/50064665.html

I have no problem with the length, or the human-readability here, but what is the colon doing there, and why does it need the file ending and those random numbers? Let’s look at magazines or weeklies, and why not from the „Spiegel“ on the same topic:

http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,673667,00.html

Quite short, tells me it’s on domestic politics, but the rest are random numbers, commas and a file ending. Again: why? Spiegel’s competitor „Focus“ is hardly any better:

http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/lafontaine-rueckzug-linke-muss-sich-neu-sortieren_aid_473483.html

It has „aid“ (which I assume means article ID) and a random number in it, which makes me wonder if they assume they will have the exact same identical headline some other time that might conflict, and the file ending, which the user just plainly does not need, not to mention the fact that the majority of internet users probably have not a clue what „.html“ means.

Why am I writing all this? It bugs me that user-centricity seems to bear of little concern to an industry which like few others struggle so much with their very existence. Newspapers are losing readers almost every month, pushed aside by blogs and other sources of information. The newsPAPER’s future, is not on paper, yet not only do most newspaper websites look far from up-to-date, nor do they seem to care about the „average joe“ surfer. For newspapers to surround their customers with an aura of comfort, visual appeal and interest, they need to rethink very simple and basic things such as the irrelevance of a file ending in an URI, the lack of prettiness of special characters and the inpracticality of very long links. You do not have to have a computer science degree to use mod_rewrite on your server, and a „pretty“ URI like

http://www.newspaper.de/yyyy/mm/dd/headline-of-my-article

should really not be too much work.

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Sebastian

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