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 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 make it easier for you to enter online sweepstakes or navigate the internet.

What Does URL Mean?

"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 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. If you give your browser a URL, it can find where to go to find the web page you want to visit.

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.

How Do URLs Work?

URLs are meant 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 69.171.224.11.

Imagine if you had to remember a number like that for every website that you wanted to visit. Ugh, 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.

Not to mention that 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 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.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 so that 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.

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.