Missing standard for minimum URL length.

Applications differ on their support for URL length because the specification fails to indicate any requirement for a minimum URL length (http://www.w3.org/Addressing/URL/url-spec.txt). MS Internet Explorer, for example, only support 2046 characters in it’s address box, a fraction of what other contemporary browsers will support. The Microsoft .NET Hyperlink component supports a much shorter URL, silently truncating the address, and Office applications and desktop shortcuts will fail to recognize links of even a moderate size.

The impact is that URLs with complex queries cannot be constructed or used reliably by many applications.

While there are design alternatives, such as using POST to send data to a server based session, any design choice that does not maintain the explicit page state in the URL will likely confuse users. That is, users expect that if they bookmark a page, they can come back to that page, even after a server side session has expired, and it will render identically. Other web paradigms include using the Web browsers back button to undo an action, something that .NET and AJAX applications frequently fail at since they don’t update the URL when updating the page state. For a demonstration of this, observe how even MS’s Live.com site maintains page state in the URL rather then use the .NET paradigm of post backs to the server.

So on the one hand, maintaining page state in the URL is desirable for usability, but on the other hand the inconsistency of support for URL lengths ensures the design will, in some case or another, fail. In some cases the failure may happen in such a way that the user is unaware of the failure –as when additional query parameters are truncated and the resulting page is not as expected. For example, a query that contains key=foo+AND+bar” and is truncated to key=abc would likely result in a silent failure.

To defend against these silent failures a Web application must be designed to test for a truncated URL. How this is done depends upon the application. For example, in one application a special character or keyword may be is placed at the end of an applications URL if it contains a query. In another, the query includes a parameter for URL length that is tested for. The key is that is that the pages URL cannot be assumed to be valid unless there is a test for validity.

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