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November 09, 2008

An URL by any other name would still work like an URL, part 2: length doesn't matter

Pretend Graph
No such chart exists. There's no magic
number when it comes to URL length.

Last month, when I wrote about subdomains, I promised to find out more regarding the question of URL length. Site owners had been telling me that their URLs were too long for users to type and that this was keeping people from responding to their direct mail campaigns. Typically the URLs in question were 30-40 characters in length. These don't seem excessively long if you consider that even a short domain name such as www.case.edu takes 12 characters itself. But it did make me wonder if anyone had studied the role URL length plays in direct mail response rates.

In search of the answer I hopped on the Web and began searching. In a utopian marketing world, I would have found some insightful marketing research that would indicate that once an url reaches X characters in length, readers—hesitant to type so much—became less likely to visit the site. Of course, the real world is not so simple, and I found no such data. If I had, it might have included a graph like the one pictured here.

If you think about it, the reason I couldn't find such data is obvious. The length of an URL is but one of several factors a reader considers when deciding whether or not to respond to a direct mail offer. When deciding whether a mailing is potentially useful, recipients, consciously or subconsciously, ask the following questions.

Why did I get this? Is it relevant to me?
You have a Ph.D. in philosophy and the mailer is telling you how to get an associates degree in 90 days. Since you are not the target audience you will throw the mailer in the bin. But if you are restoring a 1966 Mustang and the mailer is from a parts supplier—specializing in 60's muscle cars—you'll probably take a closer look.
Is it something I need/want/can afford now?
The new Macbook Pro looks great but if your current one is only a year old and serves your needs you may not need to order a new one just yet. On the other hand perhaps you can justify getting a new one by giving the older one to your daughter—who could use a better computer. If so you'll keep reading.
What are the features and benefits?
You've been invited to a conference in your field of interest. Who are the speakers? What is their level of expertise? When is the event? Will it fit in your schedule? What is the cost? Will there be food? If the speakers are well-resepected experts, the event fits your schedule, is reasonably priced and includes lunch, chances are you'll go.
What is the next step?
To respond to the offer, do you call, e-mail, visit a Web site? If the next step is to visit the Web site then you probably will take the mailer over to your computer and type in the address.

If you've made it to the last step in the above process then you've already made a choice. You have decided you are interested in the product or service and want to place your order, RSVP for the event or do whatever else may be appropriate to the offer. So what happens when you sit down at the computer to type in the Web URL? Do you stop typing because the URL is too long? How long would it have to be for you to change your mind and not order the product or service that you've already decided you want?

I don't know the answer to that but I suspect it would be more than 30-40 characters, and would depend on the strength of your original decision. If you've been searching for 6 months trying to find a certain part for your Mustang restoration project—and this supplier has that part—you'll probably be willing to type a lot to complete the order. If you're not as firmly committed then maybe a long address, particularly one with lots of special characters, would dissuade you.

Was it the URL or was it the message?

Let's say that you did change your mind about attending the event. Perhaps you've decided you'd rather catch a movie that day. What really caused you to change your mind? Was the URL impossibly long and too hard to remember? Or was the message not persuasive enough to close the sale?

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/books/review/Zerkin-t.html?_r=1&ref=authors is long (70 characters without the http://) and includes non-alpha-numeric characters that make it difficult to remember. If The New York Times were sending out direct mail promoting their book reviews, they probably would send you to the shorter http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books. It would be unusual that any of us would need to create a 70 character URL, even for a very targeted marketing campaign, but if we did, I don't know that it would be a deal breaker.

When you consider how much most of us type every day, 70 characters isn't very much. If the chore of typing 70 characters is enough to deter someone from completing their order, then perhaps they weren't that committed in the first place. If your direct mail campaign isn't sending sufficient traffic to your Web site, then you should also review your message. Was it targeted to the right audience? Did you provide the right information to help your readers make an informed decision? The only way to really know whether the message or the URL is the problem is by testing. Test different urls with the same message, try different messages with similar urls of the same length and so forth. (I'll write about split testing for direct mail in a future article.)

Isn't there any URL length data out there?

There is, but most of it is focused on URL length for search engine optimization, maximum URL length able to be read by certain browsers, etc. For our purposes the most useful number comes from usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, who recommends we use URLs that are less than 75 characters so that they don't break into multiple lines when sent through e-mail.

That was the most quantifiable answer I could find. Many people are researching various aspects of URL length, but without very specific testing it can be hard to determine if URL length or some other factor is the relevant issue. In The impact of domain name length on Web site popularity, Jeremia Froyland analyzed URL length of the top 100 sites as ranked by Alexa. The majority of these sites have short domain names (and thus short URLs) and he concluded that there is a correlation between short URLs and site popularity. But correlation is not the same as causality. The top 100 list includes sites ranging from Yahoo and Google to Apple and Hewlett Packard. Their strong brands would play a greater role in the popularity of their sites than the length of their URLs.

Conclusion

Instinctively we like the idea and ease of short URLs, but URL length is only one of many factors to consider in our Web related marketing strategies.

Learn more about URLs

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Posted by: Heidi Cool November 9, 2008 10:04 PM | Category: Heidi's Entries , Tips and Tricks , marketing , usability

Comments

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thanx for this info, i will use this for my task at my college if i may...thanx a lot

Posted by Taufan Putera on November 16, 2008 10:43 AM

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Thanks for your post, very informative!
Ivan, Web-impress.com

Posted by Ivan Shagarov on November 17, 2008 09:48 AM

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It's true what you say until you use the same URL in two different forms. If I decide to use as an URL for our wholesalers marketplace the www one, I should continue to link to it (internal and external) only to www one. Otherwise it will harm my rankings.

Posted by IT Trade Online on January 10, 2009 09:27 AM

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Long URL's have advantages if they contain info about the page. However if its contains just digits or garbage characters then it really result in less click.
However the domain should be as small as possible
like about.com etc

Posted by Web Hosting Jack on January 30, 2009 02:14 PM

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that was really informative.

Posted by SEO India on January 31, 2009 04:18 AM

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Yes I do agree with Heidi.
URL's should always be short and easy to remember like if you will see our URL - http://www.hosterio.com/web-designing.html
you can see the advantages:

1 - Its small and easy to remember
2 - web-designing.html tells the user that its related to web designing.

From the URL you can understand most of things about the website so always name ir properly and keep it as short as possible.

Posted by Shri on February 3, 2009 08:20 AM

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Are comments working?

Posted by Shri on February 3, 2009 08:22 AM

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Posted by: hac4 (Heidi Cool) November 9, 2008 10:04 PM | Comments (7) | Trackback