A Simple Guide to Understanding URLs

URLs: Their Meaning, Definition, and Usage

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

If you enter online sweepstakes, you will probably see the term "URL" bandied about. 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, the term URL can be confusing. What's the meaning of URL? What does it stand for? And why do we have them? Here's a quick and easy guide to understanding URLs, which will simplify using the term when you enter sweepstakes.

What Does URL Mean?

Definition: URL is an abbreviation that stands for "Universal Resource Locator." It's another name for a web address, the text that you type into your internet browser when you want to go to a website.

A URL works like a house address. If you give someone a house address, they can navigate to find a home or business. If you give your browser a URL, it can find where to go to find the web page you want to visit.

(That web page is the "resource" that your browser is "locating" for you with a URL)

Example: The URL for Contests and Sweepstakes on TheBalance.com is https://www.thebalance.com/contests-4074034. So if you want to visit the site, simply open your web browser and type that URL into the address field.

How Do URLs Work?

URLs are designed to be easy for people to remember and to use, but computers need information to be presented to them differently in order to 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

Imagine if you had to remember a number like that for every website that you wanted to visit. Ugh, the internet may never have taken off if that were the case!

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

So instead, we use URLs, which generally stay the same, and which 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 find information for you.

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's New Sweepstakes page, which has this URL: https://www.thebalance.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 (thebalance.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 the two terms are sometimes used synonymously. A link is a snippet of text that has been associated with a URL so that if you click on the 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.

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 so that it cannot be easily read if it is intercepted by other people (by hackers, for example).

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 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.

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.