A Simple Guide to Understanding and Using URLs

Ever Wondered What "URL" Means? Here's the Definition and More

Abstract Image of URLs
URLs Help Connect People Over the Internet. Image (c) Yagi Studio / Getty Images

If you enter online sweepstakes, you'll hear the term "URL" frequently. For example, a friend might tell you to go to a certain URL, or you could discover that you can receive extra entries for sharing a URL on social media. 

If you're not very computer-savvy, you might be confused. What does URL mean? What does it stand for? And why are they important?

Here's a quick and easy guide to understanding URLs, which will make it easier for you to enter online sweepstakes and, in general, to navigate the internet.

What Does URL Mean?

"URL" is an acronym that stands for Universal Resource Locator. You might know it as the text that you type into your internet browser when you want to go to a website.

In its most common form, a URL starts with "http://" or "https://" followed by "www," then the website name. That can then be followed by the address of directories on that web page, followed by the location of specific pages.

For example, the URL for Contests and Sweepstakes on The Balance Everyday is https://www.thebalanceeveryday.com/contests-4161941. When you want to visit the site, you simply open your web browser and type that URL into the address field.

A specific page on that website would have a longer URL. For example, here's the URL to the page about how lottery pools work: https://www.thebalanceeveryday.com/lottery-pools-what-they-are-and-how-they-work-892822.

The web page is the "resource" that your browser is "locating" for you with a URL. The "universal" part of the URL acronym comes in because URLs can help you locate other types of resources as well, including images, videos, PDF files, and more.

A URL is also called a web address because it works like a house address. You can use a house address to find the location of a friend's home or store you want to visit. Your browser uses a URL to tell it where to go to find the web page you want to visit. Internet address is another synonym for URL.

How Do URLs Work?

URLs are meant to be easy for people to remember and to use. However, computers need information presented to them in a different way.

Your web browser finds web pages using an IP, or Internet Protocol. The IP is a series of numbers, which look something like: 69.171.224.11.

Imagine if you had to remember a number like that for every website that you wanted to visit. The internet would not have become so popular if that were the case! It's far easier to use a word-based URL like https://www.thebalanceeveryday.com/.

Furthermore, not every site has a static, or permanent, IP. Some IPs change on a regular basis, which would make it nearly impossible to go directly to the websites you want to visit.

So instead of trying to memorize IPs, we use URLs, which generally stay the same and make sense to our brains.

When you type a URL into an address field, your web browser uses something called a DNS (Domain Name Server) to translate the URL to the corresponding IP. The browser can then use the IP number to bring you to your desired destination.

The Anatomy of a URL:

A URL usually looks something like this:

  • It (usually, but not always) starts with "http://" or "https://"
  • it is often followed by "www"
  • Then the name of the website you want to visit
  • Followed by specific directories where the information you want to read is stored, separated by / marks
  • Finally, the location of the page you want to read.

Take, for example, The HGTV Dream Home Sweepstakes page has this URL: https://www.hgtv.com/sweepstakes/hgtv-dream-home.

To compare it with the breakdown above, this URL:

  • Starts with https://.
  • Is followed by www.
  • And then the name of the website: hgtv.com.
  • Followed by a directory: sweepstakes.
  • And finally, the specific page you're looking for: hgtv-dream-home.

If you want, you can click the link above to be brought to that page and see for yourself how it works.

The Difference Between Links and URLs

Links are not the same as URLs, though sometimes people say "link" when they mean "URL." For example, "Type the link into your web browser."

A link is a clickable snippet of text associated with a URL. Clicking on the link brings you to the page the URL points to. This saves you time, letting you easily explore associated web pages without having to copy and paste URLs into your browser.

Example:

Here, you can see the difference between the two terms:


They both go to the same place, but one takes you directly there with a click.

In most browsers, if you hover over a link, holding your mouse over it without clicking it, you can see the associated URL at the bottom of the browser window. It's a good idea to do this before clicking on any link, so you know where that click brings you.

Secure URLs

A URL that starts with "https://" indicates that you're on a secure site. That means that if you enter personal information on that site, it will be encrypted before it's transmitted. Encrypted information cannot be easily intercepted by hackers.

Any website that requests sensitive information, such as credit card information, should use a secure protocol in its URLs so that your information cannot be ​intercepted and misused.​

Many sweepstakes websites will use https in the URL of their entry forms so your personal information is safe when you submit your entry.

Read How-to-Geek's What Is HTTPS and Why Should I Care? for more information.