Friday, May 3, 2013

What's in a URL? Usability

When branding a company, product, or program online your URL must be descriptive, succinct, memorable, and above all: user-friendly.

If only the Transportation Security Administration would have realized that sooner, they could have avoided their embarrassment this past week. Since 2011, they have used a URL for their website that promotes a pre-screening process that travelers can use to expedite domestic travel. Unfortunately for them, the URL,✓™, included check mark and trademark characters, both of which most people don’t know how to access from their keyboard. End result? Many people were unable to access the website.

(Screengrab from via Slate)

Those two symbols scrambled the URL and led visitors to a 404 page, meaning the page could not be found. The TSA has since changed the URL to Maintaining the symbol usage in the URL may have initially seemed like a nice commitment to branding standards, but ultimately made an agency not known for efficiency appear more inefficient.

So how can you avoid making TSA’s mistakes? Here are tips on choosing a URL that conveys your desired message without driving away traffic or garnering criticism.

1. Ensure the URL is succinct. If cleanliness is next to godliness, brevity will gain you online divinity. If your company, product, service or initiative’s name is verbose, think about using initials, or just the first one or two words. For instance, the White House uses and not, or because the URL is short, concise and memorable.

2. Avoid common misspellings.  Try to avoid words that are commonly misspelled and words with silent or double consonants, or an extra vowel, like “column” or “vacuum.” For added insurance, you can easily buy up common misspellings of your URL and have them redirect to the proper spelling. It’s a one-time fix that will prevent you from losing traffic.

3. Avoid hyphens and other symbols that could cause confusion. They are easily forgotten and lost in translation, and are best reserved for subpages where hyphens are a necessity. Also, keys that do not appear on most keyboards – i.e. check marks and trademark characters should be avoided as they’ll discourage users from accessing your website.

4. Consult an expert. In theory, a skilled web developer and designer should be involved in the production of your site as well as a communications strategist you can provide insight into proper branding and messaging. Your website should be the first online entry point into information about your organization. It’s important to make a good first impression. 

These are a few of the basics to get you started in deciding on a URL. Of course we’re happy to help you advance the process. Visit to learn more.

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