Hate Chrome hiding Web addresses? It may be the future

Some loathe Google's test to see whether it's better to hide the gory details of Web addresses by default. But that move could actually be a sensible shift.

Google is testing an "origin chip" that replaces the ordinary view of a Web site's full address, at top, with just the domain and a search bar, as shown on the bottom example.
Google is testing an "origin chip" that replaces the ordinary view of a Web site's full address, at top, with just the domain and a search bar, as shown on the bottom example. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Get ready for the disappearance of an aspect of Web browsing that's been there since browsers were invented: an address bar that shows the full location of the Web page you're visiting.

Google has begun a test among some Chrome users to see whether it might be better to hide away this fundamental part of browsing from the average user -- and that's triggered some sharp displeasure. But it may be that those who like seeing full Web addresses probably should get used to a future where that increasing complex and baffling text is something they have to retrieve manually.

The first stage of the test began in December when Google first added the feature, called the "origin chip," that shows a rectangular box including only a Web site's top domain -- "cnet.com," for example, instead of a full address such as "http://www.cnet.com/news/google-chrome-continues-to-outpace-firefox/" that exactly describes the Web page's location on the Net.

Chrome today shows the complete address, but with the new approach shows it only when you click the origin chip. You also can continue use the existing keyboard shortcuts of Ctrl/Cmd-L to reveal the full address. The origin chip itself changes from gray to green to signify a Web site with valid security credentials.

The feature has been activated for some users of the Chrome browser. "This is a new UI experiment that's deployed to a small fraction of users," said Paul Irish, a Google developer advocate, in a Hacker News discussion about the feature Thursday.

Change often generates a backlash, and that's exactly what happened here. One newly filed Chrome bug seeks to excise the origin chip.

"This change is not needed at all, and I don't find it convenient at all. It's the newest crap that Google made after the 'great' idea of removing the scrollbar arrows. Glad that the scrollbar arrows are back. Now I would like the address bar to be back too," the bug submitter complained. More people are piling on to reinforce the opinion, too.

More anger is evident on the Hacker News thread. Google's own Irish doesn't like it, user interface designer Gary Bacon is "not a fan," and mobile app developer Allen Pike calls URLs "the entire point of the Web."

But change, while hard, is a constant on the Internet. Ultimately, it'll be Google that decides whether it's time to retire full Web addresses from public view.

Why ditch URLs?

Web addresses -- also called URLs (uniform resources locators) or URIs (uniform resource identifiers) can indeed be very useful. So why would Google risk incurring its users' wrath?

Google didn't respond to a request for comment for this story, but it's not hard to make some good guess: because Web addresses also can be incomprehensible, distracting, and a pain.

For example, this URL can be used to track any problems that arise with the Google Omnitheater project of which the origin chip is a part: https://code.google.com/p/chromium/issues/list?can=1&q=label%3ACr-UI-Browser-Omnitheatre&colspec=ID+Pri+M+Iteration+ReleaseBlock+Cr+Status+Owner+Summary+OS+Modified&x=m&y=releaseblock&cells=tiles.

A careful look reveals some structure in that URL, and a regular user of Chrome's bug-tracker probably will be comfortable with it. But to the average person, it's as useless as the C++ programming code from which Chrome itself is built or the HTML code out of which a Web page is made. It's information best suited to a computer, not a human brain.

In the case of Web sites protected with secure encryption, the origin chip turns green.
In the case of Web sites protected with secure encryption, the origin chip turns green. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Even some people you might think would be adamantly opposed to the origin chips aren't necessarily so. Take Ian Hickson, a Google employee who helps oversee the standardization of another seminal part of the Web, HTML (Hypertext Markup Language).

"I initially was skeptical, and for me personally it's a little annoying because I edit and copy/paste URLs more than do new searches, but the cleanliness is growing on me," Hickson said.

Even closer to the technology is Anne van Kesteren, a Mozilla employee who's helping to write the standard for the URL itself.

"URLs seem too hard for typical end users to have to learn to comprehend, but we also don't have a better way to share information," van Kesteren said. "It does seem worthwhile to investigate how to have less UI [user interface] the end user does not understand. Especially if it is not necessarily important to them."

A simpler interface

Google has made a point of simplifying the browser interface, and a key part of that is the "omnibox," which displays the URL today and which also lets people people type addresses or searches. In a Google+ comment, omnibox creator and Chrome team founding member Peter Kasting shared reasons why the origin chip might be a good idea. He said it makes the omnibox less intimidating and "more inviting to type in" spotlights the actual Web domain people are using to better thwart some security problems, and could let Chrome show search terms more cleanly when people are typing and refining searches.

Currently, if you search with Chrome's omnibox, the results are shown on a page that shows those search terms on the Web page itself for those who want to refine a search. Moving those terms to the omnibox would let Google devote more of the Web page itself to showing the actual search results.

People who want to try the origin chip feature on their own can do so on Chrome by going to chrome://flags, enabling the feature for showing origin chip in the omnibox, saving the setting, and restarting the browser. Google has begun testing the feature even among those who don't enable the origin chip on their own.
People who want to try the origin chip feature on their own can do so on Chrome by going to chrome://flags, enabling the feature for showing origin chip in the omnibox, saving the setting, and restarting the browser. Google has begun testing the feature even among those who don't enable the origin chip on their own. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Kasting also said that using the origin chip to show a simplified address also could help people understand more easily where on the Web they actually are. But some location information can lost, too.

For example, "http://www.cnet.com" and "http://www.cnet.com/news" are distinct Web sites, but the origin chip shows the same address in each case. Likewise, "http://www.ebay.com" and "http://www.ebay.com/motors" are different, but the origin chip shows just "ebay.com." And the New York Times uses Web addresses that give some potentially useful information about a story's publication date -- for example with the address "http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/02/us/white-house-report-calls-for-transparency-in-online-data-collection.html."

Computer-readable address data

For all the human-readable parts of Web addresses, though, there are also elements that are designed only for computers. URLs often are plumped out by tracking tags so analytics software can monitor people's behavior on the Web, for example. Google Docs files contain dozens of characters of alphanumeric gibberish to provide each with a unique ID on the Web.

As the Web gets more sophisticated, URLs could well follow suit, doing things like encoding the state of a videogame you're playing so you could restart from a particular moment later. In other words, machine-readable URL tidbits that let you link to a particular time in a YouTube video or spotlight a section of the XKCD comic's money chart are just scratching the surface.

There are good reasons Web developers should favor simpler URLs that humans can understand better. Even if they're not shown at the top of a Web page, people still copy and paste them, bookmark them, and modify them. But as Web apps become more powerful and the Web reaches into new corners of our lives, it seems likely that computers will be doing much of the hard work of handling URLs and URIs.

"Any resource anywhere can be given a URI," said World Wide Web creator Tim-Berners Lee in 1996, and we should expect that axiom to extend far beyond just a collection of documents on the Internet. The bigger the Web gets, and the more Web addresses include instructions for a computer to use a particular Web site, the farther we'll get from simple URLs.

And when that happens, it could be that Chrome's origin chip will seem just the normal way of using the Web.

Updated at 9:48 a.m. PT to add that you also can use Ctrl/Cmd-L to reveal the full address.

Tags:
Internet
About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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