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13 November 1997


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The Skinny on URLs

If you're reading this on a computer screen, chances are you already know what URLs are. But do you understand how they work? What most newcomers to the Web don't realize is that every single thing you see or use on the Web has a Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. That includes whole Web pages and things like images, scripts, and multimedia.

The most basic URLs (and the easiest to remember) are actually just the addresses of entire sites, like http://www.hotwired.com or http://www.hits.org. The first part of a URL - in this case http:// - indicates the type of file you're accessing. On the Web, you'll almost always see the letters http, which stand for "hypertext transfer protocol," because that's the protocol used to transfer Web pages. You'll occasionally see other acronyms or words in this space, including ftp, which stands for "file transfer protocol" (you'll usually see this used to transfer software or other large files); telnet, which is used to log in to a remote computer (primarily for online "chat"); and file, which means the browser is reading a document off your own computer rather than a remote server.

The second part of a basic URL gives your computer directions about where in this vast, global network of computer servers we call the Net to find the site you're looking for.

It does this using what's known as the Domain Name System (or DNS). Unless you're planning to set up your own Web site on your very own machine, however, you don't really need to know much about DNS except that it's the system that gives us domain names like .com, .gov, .org, and many more that I don't have time to name. You should probably also know that DNS maps human-friendly addresses like www.hits.org to numerical IP addresses like 204.62.130.25, which computers use to recognize one another on the Internet. If you'd like to learn more about DNS, check out the column I wrote for Webmonkey on the subject.

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