This document outlines our recommendations for URLs and redirects for the new W3C website. This document was originally written in August, 2020, and updated in early 2021 after decisions were made on various aspects of the front-end site build (e.g. internationalization).
- Oct 21
- How URLs are currently managed
- URL persistence
- Our recommendations
- Clean URLs
- Standardise on lower-case URLs
- Prefer short URLs
- Prefer shallow URLs
- Hackable URLs
- Use trailing slashes on section pages
- Use URL paths for pages, query params for search forms
- URLs are public
- Simplify URLs for high-level pages
- Language-based URLs
- Change how year-based URLs are used
- Groups own a top-level URL space on w3.org
- Consider sub-domains for important pages
- Where we do not recommend changing URLs
- Legacy pages
- Redirect strategy
The goals of the URL strategy are to:
- give clear guidance to W3C on how to design URLs for www.w3.org
- have clean, human-readable URLs which have a predictable format
- meet the spirit of the W3C persistence policy
- ensure old URLs do not break
Back in 1999, usability expert Jakob Neilsen wrote that URLs are a critical part of the web user interface (URL as UI). His views are just as valid today. URLs help engender trust, they help people explore a website, and most importantly users to share web links to content.
With over 2 million documents and one of the longest running websites in the world it’s important that w3.org get their URL strategy right. Unsurprisingly, being around for 30 years and generating URLS over that long period of time results in a series of maintenance and usability issues that we’d like to try to help improve.
We detailed how URLs are currently managed in the Technical systems audit. Key issues include:
- Confusing URL structure for users
- Old pages sitting alongside new pages in the same URL space which are difficult to manage
- Huge number of redirects which are difficult to manage
Things often break on the web, pages are lost and users are frustrated. The idea of treating URLs as permanent objects with stable URLs that do not change is a good thing. It helps the integrity of the web, it creates a historical record, it helps search engines index your site and therefore people find it, and it offers a good example for others to follow.
The W3C URI Persistence Policy states the following resources should always remain available:
- The home page “https://www.w3.org/”.
- Those which start “https://www.w3.org/” immediately followed by four decimal digits (year-based URLs). In principle, these cover content published on a specific date (e.g. a conference talk) but year-based URLs have been used widely across the site for normal pages whose URLs should be updated.
- Those which start “https://www.w3.org/TR/” immediately followed by four decimal digits (technical reports).
- Those which start with “https://www.w3.org/ns/”.
The result of these policies is W3C has treated all pages on w3.org as follows:
- Don’t delete anything
- Don’t change old URLs
URLs should not contain file extensions such as “.html”, we recommend clean URLs made up of human-readable words. Clean URLs are composed of words in lower-case characters separated by dashes “-”.
Instead of: https://www.w3.org/Consortium/facts.html
Use lower-case URLs. Implement redirects to send users to the correct URL if they type the URL with upper-case.
Instead of: https://www.w3.org/Press/
Short URLs are better than long URLs.
We recommend shallow URLs with a minimum use of sub-paths. This helps reduce the risk of changing URLs in the future.
We do not recommend always creating sub-paths in a URL just to reflect the global navigation. Instead, sub-paths should only be created where they make sense (e.g. where part of a collection of content and is unlikely to change in the future).
Instead of: https://www.w3.org/Consortium/membership
Example of a useful sub-path: https://www.w3.org/groups/wg/css
Generally speaking, any use of URL paths should reflect a hierarchy of content. Therefore, if the user edits (or hacks) the URL to remove sub-paths, content should exist at the parent path.
This page should exist: https://www.w3.org/news/2020/
It’s important to avoid duplicate URLs, a unique URL should work with or without a trailing slash “/” but not both.
URLs are hierarchical and it’s useful to stick to a consistent pattern for the use of trailing slashes. Ideally only leaf pages (i.e. pages with no children) should not have a trailing slash. All other pages (i.e. those with children) should have a trailing slash.
Relative links on a page will work differently depending on whether the current page has a trailing slash or not.
For individual pages, do not end the URL with a trailing slash.
For example: https://www.w3.org/news/
For pages with child pages, then we recommend ending the URL with a trailing slash.
For example: https://www.w3.org/news/2021/post-name
Also see https://developers.google.com/search/blog/2010/04/to-slash-or-not-to-slash
Listing pages often have dynamically generated pages that return resources based on different criteria (e.g. a blog listing page).
Listing pages can be navigated to via a browse link (a hyperlink to a listing page with a specific filter, e.g. by year). Where a user navigates to a listing page from a browse link we recommend using URL paths to create the URL.
Please note if this results in parent URLs that have no content ensure a redirect is in place to send requests to the parent page to a sensible location.
Listing pages can also be navigated to via search forms (where users can choose a combination of search keywords and/or filters). Where a user navigates to a listing page from a search form we recommend using query parameters (also known as GET params) to create the URL.
Pagination links are often hyperlinks on a page, however, for this special case we recommend using query parameters.
Instead of: https://www.w3.org/blog/page/2
It should be assumed all URLs are public and must not contain any sensitive or personal information. For any unique one-time URLs (e.g. password resets) see W3C guidance on capability URLs.
We recommend simplifying high-level page URLs and switching to lower-case. Redirects can be implemented for old URLs.
Instead of: https://www.w3.org/Consortium/
Instead of: https://www.w3.org/participate/eventscal
Part of this project is to support multiple languages on the w3.org site. W3C is an international organisation who wants to be seen to communicate internationally. However, it is not possible to translate all web content and the default language for communication in W3C is American English.
We recommend that by default URLs are treated as American English and there is no requirement to add the language code to English language URLs.
American English: https://www.w3.org/press-releases/2020/web-for-merchants
The main reasons for this are:
- Matches current URL structure, so is a pragmatic solution
- Does not require unnecessary URL changes (e.g. we don’t really want to change the /TR page URL)
- Avoids an unnecessary technical work to update and redirect a large number of URLs
For pages in different languages, we recommend prefixing the URL pattern with the ISO 639-1 two-letter language code.
Simplified Chinese: https://www.w3.org/zh/press-releases/2020/web-for-merchants
We have recommended translating the URL path too, however, it has been highlighted that it may not be practical.
Date-based URLs are used inconsistently on the W3C site. While we cannot do a full audit of all pages on w3.org, we believe the only current valid use cases for a date-based URL are:
- Published documents where the published date is relevant, e.g. a technical report https://www.w3.org/TR/2019/NOTE-turingtest-20191209/
- Content that is clearly tied to a date, e.g. a workshop https://www.w3.org/2020/06/machine-learning-workshop/
Generally speaking, if dates are introduced into URLs we recommend keeping them as simple as possible, for example only use the year or year and month.
Instead of: https://www.w3.org/2003/08/Workshops/
Example of year-based URL: https://www.w3.org/press-releases/2020/page-title
At present W3C working groups use URLs to host content for the activity of that group in W3C. This content is distinct from the more general content on high-level pages on w3.org. Examples include:
We recommend each group owns its own top-level URL space. Where possible, convert this to lower-case for consistency.
We recommend avoiding URLs that are very close together that switch design completely, since this can be confusing for users.
We recommend moving any marketing content elsewhere and allowing the WoT group to own the URL space https://www.w3.org/wot/
Generally, all URLs are on the w3.org domain space. For important pages that make sense to manage separately we recommend W3C consider setting up sub-domains for these URLs.
One use case is the system status page at https://www.w3.org/2003/08/system-status
This uses a date-based URL, which we recommend against for content pages, and is an important page that users will want to refer to regularly. Ideally it would be hosted separately to the main W3C site to avoid being affected by downtime of the main site - which it is supposed to report on.
We recommend moving this to an easy-to-remember URL such as https://status.w3.org/
It is not practical to change all URLs on w3.org.
For example, if any of our recommendations clash with an existing 301 permanent redirect we do not recommend changing this. Permanent redirects are aggressively cached and are intended to be used for redirects that do not change.
Examples of where we do not recommend URLs are changed:
- If there is a 301 permanent redirect from the new proposed URL to another URL. If it’s really important to change the 301 redirect, change this to a 302 redirect as soon as possible in anticipation of the permanent change
- If a URL is used by a group for its website (to host content related to the activity of that group) we’d recommend liaising with the group to decide the feasibility of changing the URL.
We recommend legacy page URLs are left as-is. We have recommended in our IA recommendations adding a banner to legacy pages to indicate they are archived and no longer updated.
A log of new site URLs is being maintained at Google Sheets. This will act as a guide to URL format and structure until the Beta site is launched.
If a parent URL has no content, it’s important to 301 redirect this to a sensible location.
For example: https://www.w3.org/blog/category/
Should redirect to: https://www.w3.org/blog/
The new website structure raises a lot of recommended redirects. Some are simple changes from an old URL to a new one, some are patterns (e.g. moving a section).
A log of redirects to implement is being maintained at Google Sheets. Again, this will be maintained until the Beta site is launched.
All recommended redirects should be checked to see if they already have a redirect in place. Given the large number of URLs managed at W3C this is a medium risk.
For any 302 temporary redirects these are fine to update.
For any 301 permanent redirects, these need to be reviewed to confirm it is safe to change. If so, they must be updated to a 302 temporary redirect as soon as possible - to help the process of updating the redirect in the future.
It is the responsibility of W3C to implement all redirects. Studio 24 will advise on URL structure.
There are a number of different systems currently used to manage redirects. There are currently a large number of redirects and rewrites in place, many of which may not even be active because they are superseded by other rules.
The Technical audit report notes the following methods for managing these at present:
- HAProxy config on the www.w3.org front end
- Apache config on the web mirrors
- Apache .htaccess files on the web mirrors
- Apache/nginx config on backend servers (Symfony, wikis, blogs)
- The Web Rewrite tool is also used to manage redirects. This generates a map file used by HAProxy to more efficiently manage redirects.
Given the large number of redirects managed at W3C it makes most sense to centralise these in the Web Rewrite tool. This would enable adding features such as automated tests to help ensure URLs are robust.
Where complex rules need to be left in server configuration, for example capitalisation rules, ideally these would be kept to a minimum so they are easier to manage.
Since there is a large volume of these URLs, any such work would have to be phased. For example:
- Audit URLs and identify those that can be moved to the Web Rewrite tool
- Set up automated testing to test the rules currently in place, this will help identify rules that are no longer active
- Move redirects across to Web Rewrite tool in a number of phases
Implementing this work is outside the scope of the current website redesign project, though Studio 24 is happy to help advise where possible.
While the new site is being tested on the Beta site, it would be useful to test redirects just on the Beta site and not on the live Production site.
It may, therefore, be necessary to add a “state” for redirects in the Web Redirect system. This field could have a value of “production” or “beta” to indicate where it is used. The default value could be “production” which reflects current usage.
Given the huge number of existing redirects it would be useful to develop tools to help test redirects and allow W3C users to propose new redirects.
The first step in this is to create a test suite that can be used to test existing redirects before any changes are made. This is a good practise, test-driven approach.
We recommend a testing suite that allows to:
- Test existing redirects, identified by:
- A reference to the tool or redirect rule that defines this redirect (so it is possible to identify what config this rule is defined in, in case you it needs to be edited)
- Test URLs to test the redirects against where these are expect to go
- Identify whether a redirect works and point to page content which returns a 200 status code (ideally via one single 301 redirect)
- Identify what system performed the redirect, one way to do this is via adding headers at each point of the system (e.g. X-Redirect-By)
- Identify whether a redirect points to another redirect (not best practise and may be an issue)
- Identify whether a redirect creates an infinite loop of redirects, this could be defined by over 10 chained redirects
- Identify whether a redirect points to another error status code
- Log or notify on any unexpected issue
This would allow validating the current redirects work and identify any issues. This may help to prune the current redirect list to remove any unnecessary redirects in the first instance.
If redirects are then moved to a new system, the test suite can be re-run to detect any issues. And it can be run in the future to ensure the website and URLs are robust.
W3C have noted they have a Test Suite that is used to test URLs, however, this is “not used very actively.” We believe a fairly comprehensive test suite is needed before making any wide-ranging changes. Studio 24 cannot access this test suite so it is not clear if this just tests URLs or wider services. Our recommendation is a dedicated URL testing tool.
Given W3C Systems team’s knowledge of Symfony, one option is using Symfony HTTPClient which supports concurrent HTTP requests.