Name your sections carefully

One of today’s URLs at the East Valley Tribune in Arizona troubled me. The article, headlined “U.S. says Iraq shot down unmanned drone,” has a URL of

By naming a section of their site’s containing articles about Iraq “war,” the Tribune seems to have jumped the gun on whether the United States will decide to go to war with Iraq.

At least, that’s what I thought at first. It turns out the section has a larger scope — “America’s War on Terror” — as seen in the silly American-flag header graphic on the article. There’s no index page for the section, but I browsed the server-generated directory listing and found some of the articles are about homeland security or Al Qaida. Still, most of the recent ones seem to be about Iraq.

Putting aside the political question of whether or not a possible war with Iraq is related to the “war on terror,” the use of that section name for Iraq news is not just unfortunate, it is journalistically inappropriate (until if and when there is a war with Iraq). Perhaps a better URL fragment for the section would have been “waronterror” rather than “war”? And I’d prefer it if news about Iraq were posted separately, perhaps in a section named “iraq”.

This is a great example of the problems with adding too much information to URLs — information that might be misleading or wrong at a future date. Tim Berners-Lee recommends basing URLs on documents’ creation dates (something this Tribune section does do) but leaving out practically everything else: “After the creation date, putting any information in the name is asking for trouble one way or another.” Berners-Lee mentions how it would make more sense now for the World Wide Web Consortium’s section on HTML to be at, but the section’s original location was, and changing it would alter the URL.

The East Valley Tribune’s similar experience with changing content in an established section underscores the critical importance of naming sections carefully in the first place. Online editors might want to ask themselves whether their section names will still be appropriate 10 years from now.

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This page last modified on Friday, October 4, 2013 at 4:33 am