Capitalization in URLs
Earlier this weekend, web guru Faruk Ateş and I had a micro-discussion about the pros and cons of using capitalization in URLs. Root cause was his tweet in which he asked people to stop this practice:
The people who still use capitalization in URLs: please, stop. You’re causing completely unnecessary friction to users.
— Faruk Ateş (@KuraFire) March 31, 2012
Being guilty of doing this on some occasions myself, I felt the need to reply and in the end, I figured it’d make for an interesting blog post.
Now, first note that Faruk was referring to complete URLs (with paths and file names, etc), whereas I had the impression he was just talking about top level domain names (TLDs). More on that later.
Personally, I like the looks of a capitalized domain name, and in general I’m not a fan of using dashes. I think MarkSenff.com looks more stylized than marksenff.com or mark-senff.com. And, to the best of my knowledge, using small caps and large caps in a domain name has zero impact on a technical level, so really, entering marksenff.com, MarkSenff.com and mArksEnff.com all end up on the same web site.
So with that in mind, I figured that capitalization doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference. It’s irrelevant. Insignificant. If anything, this cosmetic issue may give the end user a better idea of what the individual words are in a URL. When Faruk disagreed and said it confuses the user, I got a little lost. I mentioned the classic example of PenIsland.net versus PenisLand.net and Faruk immediately returned again, this time that it should be about choosing a better URL over using capitalization.
Right! pen-island.com would eliminate the “need” for capitalization indeed, but again, I’m personally not a big fan of dashes, and is the solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
This is essentially where Faruk and I disagree: what’s the big deal? How does it cause unnecessary confusion, or as Faruk expressed it, “conscious harm”?
Faruk: “For the average user who doesn’t know (TLD) URLs are case-insensitive, it’s a pain.” I truly fail to see why, when we limit the discussion to the TLDs only. Just because we are giving them the idea that they have to type PenIsland.com and that penisland.com is not good? That’s not really confusing them, is it? The end result is that they end up on the correct site, which is the goal. Are there really people out there who break their head over the matter? “Oh man, I want to visit Pen Island’s site, so I HAVE to make sure I write it with a capital P and capital I…what a pain!”
Obviously, this is exaggerating things a little bit, but it illustrates how I am (probably) missing something. Or maybe, I think it’s trivial when in reality, it really isn’t.
Even if we ban capitalization
For the sake of argument, let’s say I agree and we stop using all capitalization in URLs. Is that even realistically possible, when it’s become a form of styling and branding? If we’d unofficially standardize it to lower case only (in order to eliminate the possibility of any form of confusion — or educate users that lower case is the way to go), many brands would not be able to use their graphic logos in URLs.
Lucasfilm would not be able to put the Star Wars logo in between “www.” and “.com”, as it might confuse people thinking it has to be entered as www.STARWARS.com. Or, KISS would not be able to use their iconic logo when printing their URL www.KISSonline.com, as it might confuse people thinking it has to be entered with uppercase “KISS” and lowercase “online”. Furthermore, companies whose names are made up of abbreviations are in trouble and have to change the way they write their URLs: HBO.com, NBA.com, CNN.com — all wrong!
Sarcasm mode on for a moment:
The next step would be to stop using capitalization in writing usernames. Don’t write down your Twitter username as @WhoRepresents when it’s the same as @whorepresents. Or don’t say @JaneStart when it’s just @janestart. And no need to write @KuraFire when @kurafire will do. It all creates unnecessary confusion.
Sarcasm mode off. (Sorry about that. I’m actually the least sarcastic person in the world.)
What I’m really trying to say is that capitalization is everywhere around us. People don’t get confused that easily. Of course, nobody wants to alienate their audience and I’m sure there are some people out there who can be confused by this type of thing. But really, where do we draw the line then? More common things have caused confusion among people. I truly don’t think that using a bit of capitalization in URLs for the sake of stylizing and clarification is a serious issue.
It’s my belief that this is merely opinion, and personal preference. Like “internet” vs. “the Internet”. Or “ ” vs “(:“. I’m all for standards, but not every single thing should be dictated by predefined rules. Expression of artistic freedom goes hand in hand with confusing a few people.
Before publishing this story, I took it off Twitter and contacted Faruk for a little more details. His response made all the difference, because then it became clear that he wasn’t just talking about capitalization in TLDs (he doesn’t mind that all too much) but in full URLs.
It seems we agree that writing MarkSenff.com makes some sense, but the problems he referred to appear when people use capitalization in longer URLs, such as http://www.MarkSenff.com/Blog/Stuff/Awesome-Post/. While the capitals in the TLD are irrelevant, they DO often make a difference in everything that comes after that, and need to be entered exactly like that, or else you end up 404′d.
I can see why this is a pain, especially on mobile devices. With that in mind, I agree that URLs are much easier when they’re all lower caps.
I still do think however, that when someone mentions just a domain name, it is a form of advertising and it should be allowed to be styled. This can still cause a bit of pain for the mobile user who doesn’t know that capitalization doesn’t matter, but isn’t it equally painful to have to type MarkSenff.com or mark-senff.com? This is why hyperlinks were invented in the first place, cause a click says more than a hundred characters (or something to that extent).
All in all, to recap: with full URLs, better not use capitalization.
Start with using all lower caps in your files and folders, and when you list a full URL, use all lower caps.
But when you just want to “announce” your domain name, to make people aware of your site (or name, or brand) I don’t think there’s any harm in using capitalization.
Additional remark: yes, of course Pen Island is in on the joke. I’m sure they actually embrace the whole “coincidence”. With a tagline “Your Pen is Our Business”, how could they not?