A Simple Guide to Understanding URLs: Definitions and How to Use Them

Do You Know What URL Means?

Abstract Image of URLs
••• Image (c) Yagi Studio / Getty Images

If you enter online sweepstakes, you'll probably hear the term "URL" frequuently. 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 through social media. 

If you are not very computer-savvy, you might be confused. What does URL mean? What does it stand for? And why do we need them?

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

What Does URL Mean?

"URL" is an acronym that stands for "Universal Resource Locator." It's 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 specific pages or directories followed by 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.

That web page is the "resource" that your browser is "locating" for you with a URL. Other types of resources that URLs can help you locate include 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.

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 before they can navigate to the correct website for you.

Your web browser finds web pages using an IP, or Internet Protocol. The IP is a series of numbers, which might 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 may never have become popular if that were the case! It's far easier to use a word-based URL like thebalanceeveryday.com.

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

Instead, we use URLs, which generally stay the same and make sense to our brains. When we 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 those numbers 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"
  • and then the name of the website you want to visit
  • then by specific directories where the information you want to read is stored, separated by / marks
  • and finally, the location of the page you want to read.

Take, for example, TheBalance Everyday's New Sweepstakes page, which has this URL: https://www.thebalanceeveryday.com/new-sweepstakes-and-contests-896980.

To compare it with the breakdown above, this URL:

  • starts with "https://"
  • is followed by www
  • and then the name of the website (thebalanceeveryday.com)
  • followed by new-sweepstakes-and-contests-896980, the location of the page.

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

Links: URL Shortcuts

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 snippet of text that has been associated with a URL. If you click on that text you are brought to the page that 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.

In most browsers, if you "hover" over (hold your mouse over, without clicking) a link, you can see the associated URL at the bottom of the browser window. It's a good idea to do this before clicking on a link, so you will know in advance where you are going with that click.

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 their URLs so that your information cannot be ​intercepted and misused.​

Many sweepstakes websites will use https in the URL of their entry forms so that 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.

URLs go by a few other names as well. You may also hear them referred to as universal resource locators, web addresses, or internet addresses.