Provided that print publications produced in-house and "physical" advertisements have to reference or "link" to online content, what is an accessible (in broader sense) and user-friendly way to do so?

We have an option to shorten URLs off the same domain, and these are the options considered so far are:

  • shortening URLs into something meaningful, aka vanity URLs. This tends to be abused with "short" URLs becoming longer and introducing concern about phrasal variants upon recollection (was it /askusaboutourservice or /askusaboutourservices, or could it be /talktous...?)

  • shortening URLs into Twitter-esque gibberish. Such shortenings are fairly recognizable by our target demographic and trust should not be an issue for links on our domain. IMO some 4-6 case-insensitive alphanumeric characters could be easy enough to recollect or note down, and an added bonus is leaving truly short vanity URLs for more important sections or marketing campaigns.

  • fine-tuning site search to accept custom phrases and produce "featured" results, e.g. go to our site and search for "our services". IMO this is a worse option as requires additional steps from the user and requires navigation to the site URL anyway. This is furthermore complicated by organic searches for the same term unlikely to produce the desired links, even when including the company name.

Where an option is described, please provide successful or subjectively catchy examples (like ti.me for time.com is hot)

Edit: IMO vanity URLs are further discouraged by keyword collision. For instance, last year we could provide a link to /recommended in our mailer. In this year's mailer we can't just update the redirect to point to an updated page, we want for the old link to continue working. Creating /recommended2014 seems unnecessarily verbose, and what if we had to also link to /recommendedjanuary2014?..

  • While this may not help you directly, researchers at the University of Nottingham are working on a system for aesthetic and flexible barcodes that work on the concept of topological recognition in images. Not commercial yet, but interesting nonetheless. youtube.com/…
    – abhinavc
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 20:43
  • 1
    Are you concerned about user ability to type in a url accurately, remember it, or a combination of both? Do you expect the user to have the print publication in-hand or hopefully it is a powerful enough campaign that they remember it?
    – Mark Sloan
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 0:18
  • @abhinavc that is known as 'Augmented Reality' and there are many open source and commercial SDKs for it.
    – mprototype
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 7:37
  • @MarkSloan: that is one of the concerns I wanted to have explored. In my mind, take-home publications are likely to accompany an end-user's online experience - which drove my assumption that a short alphanumeric URL would be appropriate.
    – Oleg
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 20:43
  • How long would you expect a take-home publication link to be useful? A month? Three? Forever? If it is always going to be in-hand then you could just do ###.myurl.com and it could be easy, but it comes down to branding your ad campaigns and the over arching plan I would think. I would also deprecate old URLs and reuse them if they are worthwhile. A 3 year old URL that hasn't been referenced in print is likely to be fair game.
    – Mark Sloan
    Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 23:40

9 Answers 9

  1. Personally, I think that using a full book name as a domain name and give a list of additional materials and examples as links at the home page is a nice option. See, for example:

  2. Another option is to reference publisher (or authors site) and provide a quick links at the home page for pages dedicated to the recent publications plus a search for an archive.

  3. And yet another option is to mention general URL for the publication and mark referenced sections with a special icon or sign with a number of reference (just like it's done for footnotes), so your reader will be able to easily construct a full URL by appending this number to the generic URL mentioned in the Intro section or something.

QR-codes are good, but they often require an additional software to be installed (at least at iOS devices) so it's really for younger readers. Moreover QR-codes still aren't so popular as good old easy-recognizable and human-readable domain names.

Short URLs are quicker to type but harder to memorize or guess (like a name of the publisher or a book name itself). It's better to use short URLs for social sharing.

  • +1, I especially like the footnote direction; don't think I've seen it done much in the wild
    – Oleg
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 21:44
  • ...I actually like the footnote direction so much I will award the bounty to this answer over the most popular one. Thank you!
    – Oleg
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 4:33
  • @o.v. you are welcome! It would be nice to see a result in action if you will decide to go this way :) Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 20:08

You have a few options in terms of referencing pages...

  • QR Codes
  • URL Shortener
  • Using full URL
  • Search

No matter which method you choose to use, you have your pros and cons depending on your site's demographic.

QR Codes

Using a QR code is great for the younger, more tech-savvy, users. They usually carry smartphones with them and can easily scan your QR code to visit your site. However, keep in mind that people do sometimes forget their phones, their phones break, or for whatever reason, they don't have a phone on them. Another major hurdle for this method is the older generations who either don't have smartphones and/or don't know what a QR code actually does.


  • Quick to scan
  • Recognizable by most younger generations
  • Doesn't take up much space


  • User doesn't have phone on them
  • User doesn't know what QR code is
  • Trust problems (read the URL shortener section below and apply some of it to here as well since it's also anonymous)

URL Shortener

URL shorteners are good for exactly what their name states - keeping the URL short. But do users really trust what content they'll get from it? Your short URL could be a phisher, keylogger, or any number of things.

Do users trust shortened URLs?



Many sites advise against clicking short URLs (other than ones like Facebook that actually create their own).

It's not only about trust though, as some sources suggest, people are not interested in clicking on them if they don't know what the page is for.

The standard sized URL addresses generated a 15% higher Engagement Rate than the shortened ones. The latest data from December shows an increase in the number of posted shortened links (by about 11% to 36% overall), but an even bigger decrease in average Engagement Rate per post (by an additional 14%). Does that mean that Facebook users trust these links less than they did before?


  • Take up very little space


  • Users don't necessarily trust them
  • Users don't have interest if they don't know what it is

Full URL

An oldie but a goodie. Not only does posting the full URL allow people to see exactly which site they're going to, but it provides marketing for your page, allowing them to see exactly what it's about (assuming you use a descriptive URL with juicy keywords).

If you have the room on whatever your URL is going on, then this would be the recommended route. You actually get more people visiting your URL because they know what it is and trust it more than an anonymous link.


  • User can see what site they're going to
  • User can see a bit of information (if you use descriptive URLs)
  • People of all ages know what a full URL is


  • Takes up space

As for having full URLs be problematic due to some pages being titled the same, what about adding page IDs to the URL? Almost any forum optimized for SEO does this. It keeps nice keywords in the title, while adding an ID to the link so that two threads can have the same title without a problem.



Looks nice if pages have different titles, also works if they have the same title.




As for telling your users to go on your site and search, I'm not even going to touch on this much. That's asking a user to do more steps than they'd like to do, all because you couldn't figure out which method was best to link them to it directly.

Ultimately it's a decision that differs from site to site. It depends on what you want, the age of your target audience, how much room you have wherever you're putting the URL, and many other things. We can list the pros and cons, but we can't make the decision for you unless we had all of the information.

  • 1
    Remember that, when a URL is in an offline publication, users have to type in the URL. So a string of gibberish (Shortened URLs) is gonna be the worst option. Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 18:45
  • @MikeMersereau: +1, very thorough advice. I feel not all of it is 100% relevant to our situation as we're consistently linking internal content, i.e. same domain URLs.
    – Oleg
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 21:37

Short URLs

If you can, purchase a short version of your domain. For example, nicolasbouliane.com -> nicbou.com. On my resume, I include links such as nicbou.com/winston that redirect to a much longer URL.

Such short links have multiple advantages:

  • They are memorable. No need to keep the reference next to you to type the URL in the browser.
  • They are pronounceable ("visit ourdomain dot com slash services")
  • They are decoupled from the destination, so you can redirect the link easily

Twitter-like URLs

These URLs were created for an entirely different purpose. Twitter wanted short URLs, not meaningful or usable ones. It was a matter of saving characters in a tweet, not keystrokes or effort. Uppercase and lowercase characters, zeros and O's, 1's and L's might confuse users.


This is a bad idea, since it might stop working after a redesign, and adds a lot of gotchas for the future site maintainers. That's if you don't decide to go with an external search service. On the other hand, all of your short URLs can be contained within a file.

  • Thanks for your answer. My current concern with vanity urls is having too many of them (we're currently approaching a 300 urls mark :), having too verbose ones or having collisions. I'll update my question to reflect that
    – Oleg
    Commented Jan 21, 2014 at 0:08
  • 1
    I still think it would be preferable. 300 words is very little in the grand scheme of things. The Twitter-like URLs are meant to support around 60^n URLs, n being the number of characters after the slash.
    – nicbou
    Commented Jan 21, 2014 at 13:54
  • The trick is to always use the same start, but a different end. So use ABBR.com/ExampleMarketingStunt
    – Dirk v B
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 0:30

QR Code is a concept created entirely for this purpose, but should be provided with a memorizable text link next to it, so people that currently don't have mobile phone able to read QR codes could visit it later on.

You should think of:

  • Domain hacks, like: http://del.icio.us (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domain_hack)
  • Descriptive top level domains, like https://www.facebookbrand.com/ that can be easily googled even if the potential visitor forgets the exact address
  • Abbreviation that can be easily connected to the brand/content (e.g. FCB for FC Barcelona)
  • International words having the same meaning in different cultures, e.g. "magnolia" (lower probability of remembering it with a spelling mistake)

In the links:

  • Don't use nested addresses, subdomains and variables in the address (most likely each of these will cause trouble memorizing the link), like ux.stackexchange.com/questions/50612/how-to-reference-and-provide-links-to-online-content-in-offline-media
  • Don't use special characters, especially underscore that is most likely to be mistaken with a dash (et vice versa)
  • Make the links case insensitive

Lets assume I'm your end user

If you have 10 URLs on your physical document and if you really expect me to type them into my address bar to see each of them - My answer is NO (because I'm lazy like that). At the most, I'd be willing to try 1 URL so make that 1 URL count.

Here's how you can do it:

  • Have an online page, put it on a very short memorable URL.
  • Let this page list out all the URLs on your physical print as highlighted words / keywords
  • Advertise the URL of this page on your physical print, and let the end-user know you've listed all the click-able links here and the user only need to visit this page to navigate to the rest.

Here's a pretty picture


download bmml source – Wireframes created with Balsamiq Mockups

  • While this is a valid consideration, there can be cases where multiple links make sense. Imagine that you are Siemens. You are certainly not sending the same newsletter to customers who bought a handheld kitchen mixer for 20 Euros and the customers who bought a complete nuclear electric plant from you. And you don't want to same both customer kinds to the same landing page. Similarly, you can have just one newsletter, with only one link per issue, but the link from each issue points somewhere else, to the promoted content for this quarter, for example.
    – Rumi P.
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 15:50

This problem has been solved in a number of different ways, depending largely on how much time you have to read the media (e.g. the solution is different for books vs. TV commercials).

In print stylesheets and books, one option is to print the URL in brackets after the link text, as recommended by Eric Meyer in this A List Apart article. This option may be appropriate for situations where the user has the time to properly transcribe the URL into their browser. There are some caveats though:

  1. Depending on the configuration of the web server, some URLs may be case sensitive (at least the part of the path after the DNS name). This is not commonly understood by users, and may lead to inadvertently broken links.

  2. Despite the push for permalinks, URLs can (and do) change or break over time. That's especially important if you're linking to a page or site not under your control (including media hosted on third-party services like Youtube, which may be deleted or move based on the whims of an organisation outside your control).

  3. Many (most?) URLs are terrible (designed for consumption by computers, not humans). Jakob Nielsen has a good article about how to design URLs for use by humans, but that may require technical support by your CMS or organisational policy to adhere to.

Depending on your site's design, one alternative option to specific URLs are promo codes that can be typed into your checkout form or other similar pages. That allows you to say "Go to yoursite.com and use promo code CampaignName to qualify for 20% off". That also allows you to direct people to your site from third-party promotional code directories such as Retail Me Not if you like.

In comparison to print applications, TV commercials only have a few seconds to communicate how to access their online services, and so have begun providing targeted search terms for their products and services instead of showing a URL (this has the benefit of being much more readable, less intimidating, and usually shorter, but leaves you at the mercy of the search engine your users use—this issue can be largely mitigated by paying for search engine marketing for your selected keywords).

The other, more traditional alternative is the use of vanity URLs for TV. This was particularly well applied by Dell, who often produced many different URLs for different publications (e.g. dell.com/tv vs. dell.com/pcmagazine).

Thankfully, the TV marketing industry is extremely inclined to talk about their findings, so there are a bunch of great resources online.


Similar to an URL shortner, an option that you could consider is to generate an unique URL (alphanumeric string) for each link.

You can keep the alphanumeric string short if you follow a naming convention - such as year-week-article.

e.g. www.yoursite/1406EE1 (Means 2014, 6th week, a two digit code, link number). www.yoursite/1406EE2 www.yoursite/1406SP1

... and so on.

  • This could work quite well for CMS content (where IDs could be reused) but due to heterogeneous nature of the environment there are a lot, if not a majority, of pages off-CMS
    – Oleg
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 21:49

A lot of these answers are good... Almost all of them address your question from a technical standpoint.

I'm going to keep my answer short. Resource Centers.

Rather than bombarding a consumer with link after link, encoded in QR, or shortened, or whatever, consider building a resource center.

Find a rather short, singular url... like 'optimize.ly' or something catchy that is contextually relevant to your mission, marketing, and subject. Keep your landing page clean, and simple, and provide a well organized structure to your information architecture.

Offline, send people to the landing page and encourage that they drill in to one of the content areas.

Here is an example of a simple, navigable resource center: http://blog.marketo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/featured-content.png

And here is a howto for you: http://blog.marketo.com/2013/02/how-to-create-an-amazing-content-resource-center.html

Enjoy !


Interesting problem because it sounds like you are willing to invest some effort to optimise the solution.

You could consider the old safe-but-memorable password generator approach of (adjective)(separator)(noun). This will have the effect of generating user friendly "project code words", such as


A few points to consider with this approach

  1. How carefully do you curate the adjective and noun lists
  2. Do you allow different separators to discriminate
  3. Do you allow "special cases" to override this policy
  4. Do you curate the generated result (e.g. no project wants to be "sick_dog")
  5. obviously check previously used to prevent re-generating the same codes

FYI for me I would

  1. curate positive adjectives and neutral nouns. Keep short words with and simple spellings.
  2. only use different separators when running out of fresh adjective / noun pairs (i.e. 10 year? cycle)
  3. Yes. Can't see business not insisting on this 'right' for key initiatives
  4. From 3 above, depends on politics, but I'd try automate it.
  5. Pre-generate a list of pairs ready to go. Simple way of providing control and predictability.
  • The solution fits the requirements, I would be interested in hearing the thinking behind the down vote?
    – Jason A.
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 23:13

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