What is a URL?

A URL (short for Uniform Resource Locator) is a string of letters, numbers, and special characters that identifies a place on the Internet, such as a website, and provides a method for reaching it. When browsing the Web, URLs appear in the address bar of your browser, as with https://www.brave.com/glossary. For this reason URLs are sometimes called “addresses.”

What are the parts of a URL?

When you type or paste a Web URL into the address bar, your browser looks at several parts of that address to determine how to fetch the website that the URL identifies. Let’s use this page’s address (https://brave.com/glossary/url/) as an example:

The URL protocol

The part before the colon is called the protocol. In a Web URL, this is either “http” or “https.” (You don’t need to type this part, or the “://”, into your browser; the browser will figure out the right protocol on its own.) This indicates whether the connection to the web server is encrypted; “https” means it is encrypted, while plain “http” means it’s not encrypted. Using an unencrypted website is a privacy risk, because other people on your network may be able to see what you’re doing on the website.

The URL host

The part after the “://” and before the next slash is the host. In this case, “brave.com” is the host. This identifies the server where the website is hosted. Your browser will connect to this server to request the website content.

The URL path

The first slash after the host, and everything after it, is the path. This tells the web server which part of the website to show. The meaning of the path is specific to each website, and depends on how the website’s developers have set things up. In this case, the path is “/glossary/URL”, which tells Brave’s server that you want to see this glossary page about URLs.

Note: You won’t necessarily find all of these parts (or “elements”) in every URL.

What are URL parameters?

If there’s a question mark in the URL, everything after it is not part of the path, but is rather one or more parameters. Not all URLs have parameters. The meaning of most parameters is specific to each website, although there are some whose meanings are the same across websites.

For example, the URL https://www.google.com/search?q=browser has a single parameter: “q=browser”. This is a Google Search URL, and the parameter tells Google that your search query is “browser”.

Are URL parameters safe?

Many URL parameters are essential to a site’s functionality, but parameters are also commonly used for tracking. When one website links to another, or when a company distributes links to their site in ads or emails or social media posts, those links often include tracking parameters. These parameters tell the website how you got there, which can be correlated with other information that trackers collect about you.

Brave removes known tracking parameters by default, and strips them from links that you copy.

What are URL shorteners, and how do they work?

URLs can get quite long and complex, especially with a lot of parameters. That can make them hard to remember, and awkward to paste into messages and emails. To solve these problems, there are services that can turn any URL into a very short one. These services are called URL shorteners. Commonly used ones are Bitly and TinyURL.

To shorten a URL, you go to a URL shortener’s website and enter the URL you want to shorten. (Some shorteners also offer browser extensions.) It returns you a shortened URL. The shortened URL points to the shortener’s server. When someone goes to the shortened URL, the shortener’s server redirects their browser to the real URL.

Are URL shorteners safe?

Shortened URLs can be useful, but they carry privacy risks. Because the shortened URL points to the shortener’s servers, the service operator knows when someone visits the real URL via the shortened one. They also see the visitor’s IP address. Shorteners collect and show this data to the creator of the shortened URL.

There is security risk with shortened URLs, too. When you go to a shortened URL, you have no idea where you’ll end up. Shortened URLs can be used to hide the URL of a malicious site, such as a phishing site.

Best practices with shortened URLs 

Before you click on a shortened URL, consider where it came from. If you got it from someone you don’t know, your level of caution should be higher than if it came from a friend or colleague. Be especially wary of any shortened URL that appears to come from an official source like a bank or a social media service. Such companies have the ability to create short URLs to their own servers, and they wouldn’t use an external shortening service.

After you click on a shortened URL, look at the URL you’ve been redirected to (in your browser’s address bar), to make sure you are where you expect to be.

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