What is a URL? + How do they work?
Did someone just ask you for a URL and you have no idea what they’re referring to? Allow us to explain what they are asking…
Sometimes people like to look smart.
They often do this using alternate words that you may not be familiar with.
While the issue in question may also relate to the industry the person works in – if they work in IT, “URL” may often be a more appropriate word – there is usually a much clearer way to refer to this what is a URL.
The majority of us use them every day, but at no point while using them is there any indication that they are referred to as a “URL”, so let us clarify that for you…
What is a URL?
A Uniform Resource Locator, or URL, is a method of identifying the origin of a resource on the web. It is what we use to access web pages as well as to download photos, movies, software applications and other types of items stored on a server.
Double-clicking a file on your PC opens it, but we need to use URLs to access files on remote systems, such as web servers, so our web browser understands where to look.
In many cases, “URL” is used instead of “web address“, so a URL can be as simple as a standard web address, such as “https://www.knowyourmobile.com/”.
So unless someone asks for the URL of a specific image on the web, you can usually get away with linking them to the website.
Examples of URLs
As of this writing, the URL is obviously not live yet, but if you look at your search bar, you’ll see the URL looks like:
Or at least now I’m going to make sure he is.
This is a base URL that locates the exact page you are currently viewing.
However, a URL can be much more specific, like:
Look, it’s Joe Rogan! Here’s the URL if you’d like to learn more about her morning routine (it’s as active as you’d imagine):
How is a URL structured?
Each part of a URL serves a specific purpose – it’s far from just random code.
Here’s how the Joe Rogan photo URL can be broken down:
- “https://” is the protocol that defines the type of server you are communicating with.
- “Knowyourmobile” is the domain name or website name.
- “Comis the TLD or “top level domain”, similar to “.co.uk”, “.net” and others.
- “wp-content/uploads/2022/04” designates the web page or file directory. These are the actual directories you need to browse on the web server to locate the file specified by this URL.
- “Joe-rogan-morning-routine.jpg” is the file itself that the URL points to.
URL syntax information
A URL can only contain letters, numbers and the following characters: () ! $-‘ *+.
To be approved, other characters must be encoded. Some URLs have parameters that separate them from other variables.
Whether URL text is uppercase or lowercase is important in certain parts of a URL, especially everything after the domain name (directories and filename).
When you see a question mark in a URL, it means you want to submit a particular command to a script hosted on Google’s server in order to receive personalized results.
Anything placed after the ?q= section of the URL is detected as a search term by the particular script that Google uses to perform searches. So anything typed at this point in the URL is used to search on Google’s search engine.
After a question mark, one or more ampersands are used in URLs that use multiple variables.
The question mark will precede the first variable, but the next variable, fields-keywords, will be preceded by an ampersand. An ampersand would also be used to separate other variables. “I’m looking for this? &this &this &this”.
Depending on the context, some URLs can switch between arguments. Adding a timestamp to a YouTube video is a good example. An ampersand is required for some connections, while a question mark is required for others.
Anchors can also be used in URLs. These are found at the bottom of the page and describe where the link will take you when you click on it. The pound sign is used to create anchors when adding links to a web page.
Striking facts about URLs
Sad that our URL discussion is coming to an end? Don’t worry, we’ve prepared some fun facts about URLs before we part with this discussion.
- Some URLs are quite long and complicated, and it is advisable to click on them as links or copy/paste them into your browser’s address bar. A 400-series HTTP status code issue, the most common of which is a 404 error, can be caused by a typo in a URL.
- The port name is not required in most URLs. It is possible to open google.com by adding the port number at the end, such as http://www.google.com:80, although this is not required. You can visit the page by changing the port to 8080 if the website was running on that port.
- If a URL points to a file that your web browser can display, such as a JPG image, you don’t need to download it to your machine to view it. You will be asked to upload files that are not normally displayed in the browser, such as PDFs and DOCX files, including EXE files.
- FTP sites use port 21 by design, although some may use port 22 or something else. If the FTP site does not use port 21, you must specify which port it uses in order to connect correctly to the server. The same principle applies to any URL that uses a port other than the one the software used to access expects by default.
Jake is a lifelong professional writer, journalist, and tech enthusiast. It covers KnowYourMobile news and user guides.