The site ReadWriteWeb recently did an article called Facebook wants to be your one true login. The contents of this article are something I’ll address in another post. What I want to talk about today has nothing to do with the actual contents of the article, and everything to do with the fact that this article was for some period of time one of the highest hits on Google for the search “Facebook login”.

The comments thread on the article filled up with over a thousand comments from confused and frustrated people asking “Now how do I log in?” and “The new design sucks!”.

That’s right. These people had been relying on a Google search for “Facebook login” to get to the Facebook login page. When they ended up at ReadWriteWeb instead, they didn’t know that they were in the wrong place. They thought that the Facebook login page had changed, and they weren’t happy about it. ReadWriteWeb has now put up a gigantic disclaimer on the article to explain that they are not Facebook and explain how to get there.

This whole chain of events seems destined to go down in Internet history as an amazing pile-up of failure.

Reactions seem divided into two camps. One camp is having a great laugh at the stupidity of the users – after all, how could they look at a page with a red masthead, titled “ReadWriteWeb”, featuring a news article, and think they were on the Facebook login page? How could they be smart enough to figure out how to leave a comment, but too dumb to know what site they were on?

The other camp, for example an article from blogger Funkatron called We’re the stupid ones is pointing the finger at the software world for assuming that everyone knows as much about computers as we do, and more specifically at Google – after all, isn’t this in some way Google’s screw-up for returning the wrong result?

Well, the name of this blog is “Not the User’s Fault”, so much as I would like to have a laugh at stupidity and then move on, I think it’s better to try to understand what this must have been like from those users’ point of view, and see if there’s anything we can learn from the whole boondoggle.

You and I know that the URL in the location bar is an ever-present answer to the question where am I ?. Any time something seems wrong, we’ve got a habit of checking the URL to see if we’re where we thought we were. If you’re in the habit of paying attention to the URL, then it’s hard to see how you could mistake ReadWriteWeb for facebook.

So what this mess teaches us is that there are lots of people out there who don’t know how to read a URL. The URL in the location bar, if they notice it at all, must appear to them as nothing but a bunch of computer gibberish.

Think about it from their point of view. They knew that Googling “facebook login” and then clicking the first link took them to their Facebook login. I wouldn’t call it the best way of getting to Facebook, but it was obviously working for these poor souls. Until one day, they saw something they didn’t expect. If you don’t know how URLs work, then all you know is that your expected Facebook login page has somehow been replaced with… something else.

You know how, in Firefox 3, you can type something that’s not a URL into the location bar, and it’ll invisibly do a Google “I’m feeling lucky” search and take you straight to the result? (I just checked and, as of right now, typing “facebook login” there does indeed take me to the Facebook login page.) Great time-saving feature, right? But what if you come to rely on that feature without really understanding how it works… and then one day the result changes? I don’t know if any of the confused users on ReadWriteWeb got there using Firefox 3, but it seems plausible that some of them did just that.

This “time-saving feature” is great if you know what you’re doing… but isn’t it a bit dangerous to give to people who don’t understand URLs?

Above, I said that the URL was the answer to the question “Where am I?”. Actually, that’s not quite true. The URL is looked up in a DNS server to determine an IP address, and then the browser connects to an HTTP server on whatever computer that IP address points to. The IP is the real location; the URL is just a human-readable way of looking up the IP. It almost always works the way you expect, and you don’t have to think about it…. except that DNS servers can be hacked. URLs can be spoofed. You can enter a URL and end up connected to a different server than the one you wanted.

When people type “facebook login” into the Firefox URL bar, or into a Google I’m-feeling-lucky search, then aren’t they really just using Google as a sort of higher-level DNS lookup? One that turns their English description of what they want into a URL? From their point of view, what happened to them with ReadWriteWeb is no different from a spoofed URL or a hacked DNS server taking them to the wrong place. It doesn’t seem so funny anymore, does it?

Is there anything we can do about this? A while ago I wrote a post about doing user support for Firefox, where I said:

You can simplify the material down until it reaches the student’s current level of understanding. Or you can raise the student’s level of understanding until they become capable of grasping the material.

So right now we’ve got people who don’t understand URLs. Do we simplify the Web for their benefit? Or do we raise their level of understanding?

I think it has to be the latter. The idea of navigating by URL is so fundamental to how the Web works that it’s hard to imagine abstracting it away. More than that, trying to abstract it away is dangerous. Imagine someone who doesn’t understand URLs clicking on a link in a phishing attack that takes them to a fake PayPal or whatever. If they don’t know to look at the URL, how are they going to have any idea that they’re not on the real PayPal?

People using the Web without understanding URLs are quite literally putting themselves in danger, just as if they went out driving on the road without understanding how to read road signs.

I’m not suggesting that we, like, make people take a driver’s test or earn a license before they’re allowed to use the Web. I’m not sure what solution to this is, but I know it involves doing a better job of educating people. Maybe Firefox could do more to teach first-time users what URLs are and why they should pay attention to them.

If there was ever something like a video-game tutorial level for the Internet, then reading URLs surely ought to be one of the skills that the “player” needs to master before moving on.