Are Contextual URLs Worth the Trouble on an Intranet?

By Deane Barker on July 15, 2011

I’m wondering if there’s a really strong purpose to contextual URLs on intranets?  I’ve been a strong proponent of good URLs in the past, but I’ve just converted an intranet from a URL pattern like this: /page.aspx?id=34237

To a URL pattern like this: /en/departments/customer-service/my-page

Now, this is great, right?  There’s all sorts of reasons like contextual URLs are good.

But what I’m wondering is how many of these reasons hold weight on an intranet?  For one, SEO is sort of out, as a benefit.  I don’t really SEO my intranet.  Sure, we can search bias a bit against our own engine, but that’s about the extent of it – the URL will never come into it.

Additionally, an intranet user is a different kind of user.  They’re more...indoctrinated.  They have a basic level of training, and softer reasons for contextual URLs like spatial awareness are less important.  On an intranet, we find that user behavior is more known item seeking or re-finding more than just indiscriminate browsing.

The downside to these contextual URLs is that they can change.  And they do – more than you think.

For example, due to a misconfiguration, we had the “/en/” in there.  When we reconfigured and this came out, all the URLs changed, and by then they had a bunch of URLs baked into PDFs which had already been distributed far and wide, which left us scrambling to put in redirects.

But, beyond this problem, pages get moved, titles get changed, etc.  I’ve been fairly surprised at how often these URLs shift around.

Essentially, we have no permalink under this scheme.  The URL a page responds to is a temporary thing all of a sudden – there’s no URL that we know a page will always respond to, which I find is pretty important in an intranet.  Every page in an intranet is kind of a historical record, and being able to find page ID #34237 – wherever it is right now – can come in handy.

To counter that, we’re probably going to introduce a permalink system, whereby we have a specific URL pattern of just the ID (“/34237”) that will redirect the user to wherever that page is right now.

On a public site, I would rationalize all this by saying that contextual URLs are absolutely worth the trouble.  But, on an intranet, I guess I’m struggling to justify it more.

Anyone want to persuade me in either direction?

Comments (6)

Seth Gottlieb says:

I am probably in the minority here but I like to use URLs like bread crumbs. I find it useful to know that “my-page” is about “customer-service” and that “customer-service” is a “department.” I will also do things like edit the URL in my browser like removing the “/my-page” to get back to the “customer-service” landing page.

I don’t know if the average intranet user cares about these things.

Brad Rhine says:

I’m in the midst of completely redoing our website/intranet at work (from Joomla to WordPress). On the public side, we’re moving from horrible, horrible URLs to contextual URLs. I’m embarrassed to have my name on a public site without pretty URLs. :)

On the intranet side, I don’t think it’s as big a deal at all. Most of our intranet users don’t type in specific addresses or bookmark particular pages. They log in and navigate to where they need to go, or they click on a link in an email notification. Either way, they don’t particularly care what the URL looks like. Not worth the hassle.

Luke Oatham says:

I agree with Seth. Some people do build urls to get to pages. And URLs do help search results.

People using intranets are just as important as people using public websites. They are the same people. They browse pages the same way.

Please see this blog post on why urls are so important on intranets:

How we improved our intranet search experience (Intranet diary)

Jackson Lin says:

When we initially developed our software we didn’t think having pretty URLs was important. But we’ve changed our position on it.

The main reason is that we found a lot of clients will email the URL of a specific item. Now we make a project management app, so perhaps the way people use it is different than an intranet...

...but we found that if someone emails a link to a task with a pretty URL, the recipient will know what it is before even clicking it.

Sebastiano Pilla says:

Aside from uglyness (which is in the eye of the beholder) is there anything that demonstrates unambiguously why “pretty” URLs will result in a better placement in search results? All that I’ve found is the Google page linked below, which doesn’t give any truly good reason.

James Robertson says:

I agree that human-readable URLs are less important on the intranet, but I still think they’re worth doing. They will be helpful for some people, but also allow links to be more meaningfully emailed around (where required). At the end of the day, why not have human-readable URLs?

Frankly, I like CMS solutions to keep track of page moves, and to automatically redirect site visitors. It’s technically not hard to do: the page still has the same ID behind the scenes, and the CMS knows the old and new location.

A few CMS products I’ve seen do this, but not as many as I would like!

Cheers, James