How to Read a URL

Yesterday my 7 year old son asked, “Can we go to”, after seeing that come up while he was watching one of his shows. Playing along, I asked him what he meant by “go to”. He told me to turn on the computer and type it in and the computer would take me there. Now, he’s 7, but it’s also just part of his world. He, like many of our students, have never lived in a house without a computer or without cell phones that could connect to the internet. At some point, I’m going to teach him about how all that works, but I also realize, he probably won’t care. It doesn’t matter to him how it works, just as long as it does. I’m going to teach him anyway though so that he will be able to decipher the information and understand how the web works. He, like all our students, will be accessing the internet more and more to get their information. So as you talk to your students, it’s important to help them become more web literate so they are better able to think critically about online information and validate that information for accuracy. What follows is a breakdown of the basic structure of a web address.

Everytime you type a web address into a browser you are actually connecting to a server where that houses the website file and all the images and content on that page. The server actually has a similar set up to your own desktop or laptop computer in that there are folders (called directories) where those files are held. So think about your My Documents folder and the files and folders in there. Websites work basically the same way and your browser gives you access to those files. But, there’s a lot more to a web address than just connecting to a website. So let’s take a look at what makes up a web address.

A web address is also called a URL (Universal Resource Locator). When you type in that web address, your browser goes out to the internet and connects you to the server that houses the files that make up that website. The browser then translates those files into a useable format so that you can see the information as the creator intended. A URL is actually made up of a few parts.

The first piece is the protocol. This tells your computer and browser what to do with the files that you are about to get. The most common protocol you probably see is http://. Http stands for “hypertext transfer protocol” and that tells your computer that you are about to look at a website.

Here are some other protocols you may have seen before:

  • FTP – file transfer protocol – allows you to upload and download files to a server.
  • POP3 – post office protocol version 3 – an email protocol that allows you to download email to a program or device
  • SSL – secure socket layer – a security protocol that keeps you safe when putting in passwords and account numbers

The second part of a URL is called the domain. The domain is what you probably remember best when you go to a website. If you wanted to go to the National Geographic website, you’d type in That’s the domain for that website. However, the domain is made up of two parts, the word “nationalgeographic“, and the extension “.com“. There are obviously tons of domains out there and there are lots of extensions including .edu, .net and .org.

Many times, that’s all you need to get to a website’s homepage. However, some times there’s additional information on these pages. For example, the website for the Instructional Technology Department is The “tis” called a subdirectory. This is a folder that’s on the server that holds other files that can then be displayed. Just like on your computer, there may be a number of subdirectories in in your URL.

The final portion of the URL is the actual file that is being displayed. This might end in .html, .pdf, .jpeg, etc. These are the actual file names that are on the server. In the url, the very last part “index.cfm” is the file name that is displayed. Below is an entire URL broken down into it’s basic parts.

When your students do a search and get a website with a long url, it’s important to teach them what these pieces are so that they can determine the validity of the information. So many times students will cite the first 1 or 2 results in a search as the authority. By teaching them to look at the URL and break it down, that’s one more tool they have to think critically about the information they’re finding. For more information on web literacy, Alan November has written a book entitled, Web Literacy for Educators that has this information and more. It’s important for our students to be critical consumers of information.  This is just one of many methods to help them reach that goal.

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