URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator. When a website is created it is given a numeric IP address so that it can be located. The URLs that we are more familiar with are simply host names that are more meaningful and recognisable than the numeric IP addresses. By having a host name, the site can move IP addresses and users will still be able to locate the site using the host name. URLs are sometimes also called URIs, with the "I" standing for "identifier". An example of a URL is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/entertainment which is the URL for the home page of the BBC website's entertainment section.
Before considering how the URL itself can help in the evaluation of a website a quick consideration of the components of a URL is useful. The BBC entertainment home page is used as an example:
At the beginning of a URL is the protocol i.e. http:// which is used to locate the information. A protocol is just a means of communication between computers via a network. It allows the information to be taken apart, transmitted at high speed and then reassembled at destination (Anon 2003). The next part is the host name of the computer, or server that is storing the information: www.bbc.co.uk, the BBC, a company in the UK. After the host name, there may be the name of a specific folder or file such as: /entertainment which is the folder for the entertainment section. If no filename is specified the folder location defaults to the index page of the folder. On some sites you will see index.html at the end of the URL.
A URL can be useful as part of your evaluation as it can give some guidance to the source of a site which is obviously helpful when evaluating the content. The ending of a URL (before any folders or file names), is indicative of the location of the source. For example .uk means that the site is located in the United Kingdom. Most sites from the United States and many international companies use .com. Some other examples include .au for Australia, .de for Germany, .es for Spain and .za for South Africa.
In addition to identifying their geographic location, information about the institution or organisation that produced the material can also be found in the address. For example, if a UK address ends .ac.uk (instead of .co.uk for a company) it is an academic institution such as an university. In the USA, .edu (in place of .com) is used to indicate an academic institution.
Additionally, .gov.uk indicates a governmental site (.gov in the USA) for example the department for work and pensions has the URL: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/. Whilst .org represents non-profit organisations for example the National Trust (http://www.nationaltrust.org/) and amnesty international (http://www.amnesty.org/). Further, .net (network) is similar to .co.uk or .com in that there are no restrictions on who can use it although it is not as widely used as .co.uk or .com. Originally, .net was designed to be used by network orientated groups such as Internet service providers (Wikipedia 2006), hence the name .net.
Taking a few moments to review the information contained in a URL can give a good indication of the information provider's background and reliability. For example you may expect the information contained on a government run webpage to be very accurate and reliable!