What are URLs?

Many people wouldn’t know how to answer the question ‘what are URLs’, yet the answer is surprisingly straightforward

Thursday, 22 September, 2022

To many people, the internet is a baffling place, filled with technical jargon and acronyms.

HTTP and HTML are both related to the hyper text that allows one document to link to another, yet the former refers to distribution while the latter is a programming language.

VPNs and VPSs relate to different virtual environments, while Kilobits are one-eighth the size of KiloBytes, and used to measure data transfer speeds rather than file sizes.

The internet wasn’t designed to be clear-cut, or instinctively understood. And that becomes particularly apparent when we reach the question of what are URLs…

A resourceful type

URL is an acronym of Uniform Resource Locator, and it’s a globally recognised method of finding an address on the internet.

Indeed, ‘web address’ and ‘URL’ may be used fairly interchangeably.

Every website in existence has a unique address, just like buildings. Without a unique identifier, nobody could get to the right location.

A URL consists of four main elements:

Each URL is unique.

Nobody else can register broadbanddeals.co.uk as their website address, in the same way nobody else can claim your house address or phone number as their own.

Websites attempting to mimic an established URL (broadbanddels.co.uk, amazom.com) are downgraded by search engines, whose job it is to find reputable sources of online data.

You can research live websites on the global Whois directory, which hosts a record of when a URL was first registered and who owns it, among other publicly-visible information.

What are URLs compared to IP addresses?

URLs are based on the English language (in English-speaking countries, at least), because humans find words far easier to remember than numbers.

Yet the electronic devices powering the internet (computers, laptops, smartphones, servers) don’t understand English. They only understand numbers.

That’s why an Internet Protocol address is a lengthy numeric string, whereas a URL is a series of words.

You should remember acme.co.uk, but you probably wouldn’t remember, which could be the corresponding IP address for the Acme Corporation’s host server.

(A server is the giant disc drive on which information like website data is stored. It’s usually hosted by a third party, rather than stored on a specific computer’s hard drive).

A URL contains the IP information necessary for a web browser or device to find the right server, connecting to it and requesting a two-way information exchange.

IP addresses are notoriously hard to find, and traditional techniques like pinging a domain using the command prompt (see how easily jargon creeps in?) rarely work.

That’s because the process of converting a URL into an IP address is handled by domain name servers (DNS), matching the former to the latter.

If you try to access a website that’s no longer available, you might see a DNS error reported in your web browser. In other words, it can’t find the resource you’ve asked it to locate.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!