Cool URIs for the Semantic Web

W3C Interest Group Note @@@@@DD Month 2007

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Leo Sauermann (DFKI GmbH)
Richard Cyganiak (Freie Universität Berlin)
Max Völkel (FZI Karlsruhe)


The Resource Description Framework RDF allows you to describe Web documents and resources from the real world—people, organisations, things—in a computer-processable way. Publishing such descriptions on the Web creates the Semantic Web. URIs are very important as the link between RDF and the Web. This article presents guidelines for their effective use. We discuss two strategies, called 303 URIs and hash URIs. We give pointers to several Web sites that use these solutions, and briefly discuss why several other proposals have problems.

Status of this document

This is an editor's draft of a document planned to be published as an Interest Group note of the Semantic Web Education and Outreach Interest Group.

This section describes the status of this document at the time of its publication. Other documents may supersede this document. A list of current W3C publications and the latest revision of this technical report can be found in the W3C technical reports index at http://www.w3.org/TR/.

This is a W3C Working Group Note giving a tutorial explaining decisions of the TAG for semantic web beginners. This is an HTML conversion of DFKI Technical Memo TM-07-01, Cool URIs for the Semantic Web (PDF), reviewed by the Technical Architecture Group TAG. of the POWDER Use Cases and Requirements, developed by the POWDER Working Group as part of the Semantic Web Activity, to aid public discussion and solicit feedback on the group's aims. The group is particularly keen to learn of other potential use cases or additional features that should be considered for POWDER.

This document was developed by the Semantic Web Education and Outreach (SWEO) Interest Group. A complete list of changes to this document is available.

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Publication as an Interest Group Note does not imply endorsement by the W3C Membership. This is a draft document and may be updated, replaced or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to cite this document as other than work in progress.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

The Semantic Web is envisioned as a decentralised world-wide information space for sharing machine-readable data with a minimum of integration costs. Its two core challenges are the distributed modelling of the world with a shared data model, and the infrastructure where data and schemas can be published, found and used. A basic question is thus how to publish information about resources in a way that allows interested users and software applications to find them.

On the Semantic Web, all information has to be expressed as statements about resources, like the members of the company Acme are Alice and Bob or Bob's telephone number is "+1 800 262 or this Web page was created by Alice. Resources are identified by Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) [RFC3986]. This modelling approach is the Resource Description Framework (RDF) [RDFPrimer].

At the same time, Web documents have always been addressed with Uniform Resource Locators (URLs). URIs and URLs share the same syntax, every URL is also a URI. This is good because it means we can easily make RDF statements about Web pages, but it is also dangerous because we can easily mix up Web pages and the things, or resources, described on the page.

In general, what URIs should we use in RDF? As an example, to identify the frontpage of the Web site of ACME Inc., we may use http://www.acme.com/. But what URI identifies the company as an organisation, not a Web site? And do we have to serve any content—HTML pages, RDF files—at those URIs? In the remainder of this paper we will answer these questions. We explain how to use URIs for things that are not Web pages, such as people, products, places, ideas, and ontology classes. We give detailed examples how the Semantic Web can (and we think: should) be realised as a part of the Web.

We assume that you are familiar with the basics of the RDF data model [RDFPrimer]. We also assume some familiarity with the HTTP protocol [RFC2616]. Wikipedia's article [WP-HTTP] serves as a good primer.

2. URIs for Web Documents

Let us begin with an example. Assume that ACME Inc., the fictional company from many Warner Brothers movies, has a Web site at http://www.acme.com/. Imagine, part of the site is a white-pages service listing the names and contact details of the employees. Alice and Bob both work at ACME. The structure of ACME's Web site might thus be:

the homepage of ACME, Inc.
the homepage of Alice
the homepage of Bob

Like everything on the traditional Web, each of the pages mentioned above are Web documents. Every Web document has its own URI. Note that a Web document is not the same as a file: A single Web document can be available in many different formats and languages, and a single file, for example a PHP script, may be responsible for generating a large number of Web documents with different URIs. A Web document is defined as something that has a URI and can return representations (responses in a format such as HTML or JPEG or RDF) in response to HTTP requests. In technical literature, such as Architecture of the World Wide Veb, Volume One [AWWW], the term information resource is used instead of Web document.

On the traditional Web, URIs were used primarily for Web documents—to link to them, and to access them in a browser. In short, to locate a Web document—hence the term URL (Uniform Resource Locator). The notion of resource identity was not so important on the traditional Web, a URL simply identifies whatever we see when we type it into a browser.

2.1. HTTP and Content Negotiation

Today's Web clients and servers use the HTTP protocol [RFC2616] to request representations of Web documents and send back the responses. HTTP has a powerful mechanism for offering different formats and language versions of the same Web document: content negotiation.

When a user agent (e.g. a browser) makes an HTTP request, it sends along some HTTP headers to indicate what data formats and language it prefers. The server then selects the best match from its hard disk or generates the desired content on demand, and sends it back to the client. For example, a browser could send this HTTP request to indicate that it wants an HTML or XHTML version of http://www.acme.com/people/alice in English or German:

GET /people/alice HTTP/1.1
Host: www.acme.com
Accept: text/html, application/xhtml+xml
Accept-Language: en, de

The server could answer:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: text/html
Content-Language: en

followed by the content of the HTML document in English. Content negotiation [TAG-Alt] is often implemented with a twist: Instead of a direct answer, the server redirects to another URL where the appropriate version is found:

HTTP/1.1 302 Found
Location: http://www.acme.com/people/alice.en.html

The redirect is indicated by a special status code, here 302 Found. The client would now send another HTTP request to the new URL. By having separate URLs for all versions, this approach allows Web authors to link directly to a specific version.

RDF/XML, the standard serialisation format of RDF, has its own content type too, application/rdf+xml. Content negotiation thus allows publishers to serve HTML versions of a Web document to traditional Web browsers and RDF versions to Semantic Web-enabled user agents. And it allows servers to provide alternative RDF serialisation formats like Notation3 [N3] or TriX [TriX].

3. URIs for Real-World Objects

On the Semantic Web, URIs identify not just Web documents, but also real-world objects like people and cars, and even abstract ideas and non-existing things like a mythical unicorn. We call all these things resources.

Given such a URI, how can we find out what resource it identifies? We need some way to answer this question, because otherwise it will be hard to achieve interoperability between independent information systems. We could imagine a service where we can look up a description for a URI, similar to today's search engines. But such a single point of failure is against the Web's decentralised nature.

Instead, we should use the Web itself—an extremely robust and scalable information publishing system—as a lookup service for resource descriptions. Whenever a URI is mentioned, we can look it up to retrieve a description containing relevant information and links to related data. This is so important that we make it our number one requirement for good URIs:

1. Be on the Web.
Given only a URI, machines and people should be able to retrieve a description about the resource identified by the URI from the Web. Such a look-up mechanism is important to establish shared understanding of what a URI identifies. Machines should get RDF data and humans should get a readable representation, such as HTML. The standard Web transfer protocol, HTTP, should be used.

Let's assume ACME Inc. wants to publish contact data of their employees on the Semantic Web so their business partners can import it into their address books. For example, the published data would contain these statements about Alice, written here in N3 syntax [N3]:

<URI-of-alice> a foaf:Person;
    foaf:name "Alice";
    foaf:mbox <mailto:alice@acme.com>;
    foaf:homepage <http://www.acme.com/people/alice> .

What URI should we use instead of the placeholder <URI-of-alice>? Certainly not http://www.acme.com/people/alice, because that would confuse a person with a Web document, leading to misunderstandings: Is the homepage of Alice also named “Alice”? Has the homepage an email address? And why has the homepage a homepage? So we need another URI. (For in-depth treatments of this issue, see Tim Berners-Lee [HTTP-URI2] and David Booth [Booth]).

Therefore our second requirement:

2. Don't be ambiguous.
There should be no confusion between identifiers for documents (URLs) and identifiers for other resources. URIs are meant to identify only one thing, and one URI can't stand for both a Web-retrievable document and another real-world object.

We note that our requirements seem to conflict with each other. If we can't use URLs of documents to identify real-world object, then how can we retrieve a description about real-world objects based on their URL? The challenge is to find a solution that allows us to find the describing documents if we have just the resource's URI, using standard Web technologies.

The following picture shows the desired relationships between a resource and its describing documents:

A resource and its describing documents

Another question is where to draw the line between traditional Web documents and other, non-document resources. According to W3C guidelines ([AWWW], section 2.2.), we may have a Web document if all its essential characteristics can be conveyed in a message. This is not a very precise definition. Our recommendation is to err on the side of caution: Whenever an object of interest is not clearly and obviously a document, then it's better to use two distinct URIs, one for the resource and another one for the document describing it.

4. Two Good Solutions

There are two solutions that meet our requirements: 303 URIs and hash URIs. Which one to use depends on the situation, both have advantages and disadvantages.

4.1. 303 URIs

The first solution is to use a special HTTP status code, “303 See Other”, to distinguish other resources from regular Web documents. Since 303 is a redirect status code, the server can also give the location of a document that describes the resource. If, on the other hand, a request is answered with one of the usual status codes in the 2XX range, like 200 OK, then the client knows that the URI identifies a Web document. This practice has been embraced by the W3C's Technical Architecture Group in its httpRange-14 resolution [httpRange].

If ACME adopts this solution, they could use these URIs to represent the company, Alice and Bob:

ACME, the company
Bob, the person
Alice, the person

The Web server would be configured to answer requests to all these URIs with a 303 status code and a Location HTTP header that provides the URL of a document that describes the resource.

The following picture shows the redirects for the 303 URI solution:

The 303 URI solution

The server could employ content negotiation (see Section 2.1.) to send either the URL of an HTML description or RDF. Requests for HTML would be redirected to the Web page URLs we gave in Section 2. Requests for RDF data would be redirected to RDF documents, such as:

RDF document describing ACME, the company
RDF document describing Bob, the person
RDF document describing Alice, the person

Each of the RDF documents would contain statements about the appropriate resource, using the original URI, e.g. http://www.acme.com/id/alice, to identify the described resource.

4.2. Hash URIs

The second solution is to use “hash URIs” for non-document resources. URIs can contain a fragment, a special part that is separated from the rest of the URI by a hash symbol (“#”).

When a client wants to retrieve a hash URI, then it is required to strip off the fragment part before requesting the URI from the server. This means a URI that includes a hash cannot be retrieved directly, and therefore cannot identify a Web document. We can use them to identify other, non-document resources, without creating ambiguity.

If ACME adopts this solution, then they could use these URIs to represent the company, Alice, and Bob:

ACME, the company
Bob, the person
Alice, the person

Clients will always strip off the fragment part before requesting any of these URIs, resulting in a request to this URI:

RDF document describing ACME, Bob, and Alice

At this URI, ACME could serve an RDF document that contains descriptions of all three resources, using the original hash URIs to identify the resources.

The following picture shows the hash URI approach without content negotiation:

The hash URI solution without content negotiation

Alternatively, content negotiation (see Section 2.1.) could be employed to redirect from the about URI to separate HTML and RDF documents. Again, the 303 See Other status code must be used. (Otherwise, a client could conclude that the hash URI refers to a part of the HTML document.)

The following picture shows the hash URI approach with content negotiation:

The hash URI solution with content negotiation

4.3. Choosing between 303 and Hash

Which approach is better? It depends. The hash URIs have the advantage of reducing the number of necessary HTTP round-trips, which in turn reduces access latency. A family of URIs can share the same non-hash part. The descriptions of http://www.acme.com/about#acme, http://www.acme.com/about#product123, and http://www.acme.com/about# product456 are retrieved with a single request to http://www.acme.com/about. There is a counter-effect, too. A client interested only in #product123 will inadvertently load the data for all other resources as well, because they are in the same file. 303 URIs, on the other hand, are very flexible because the redirection target can be configured separately for each resource. There could be one describing document for each resource, or one large document for all of them, or any combination in between. It is also possible to change the policy later on. But the large number of redirects may cause higher latency.


Hash URIs should be preferred for rather small and stable sets of resources that evolve together. An ideal case are RDF Schema vocabularies and OWL ontologies, where the terms are often used together, and the number of terms is unlikely to grow much in the future.

Hash URIs without content negotiation can be implemented by simply uploading static RDF files to a Web server, without any special server configuration. This makes them popular for quick-and-dirty RDF publication.

303 URIs should be used for large sets of data that are, or may grow, beyond the point where it is practical to serve all related resources in a single document.

If in doubt, it's better to use the more flexible 303 URI approach.

4.4. Cool URIs

The best resource identifiers don't just provide descriptions for people and machines, but are designed with simplicity, stability and manageability in mind, as explained by Tim Berners-Lee in Cool URIs don't change [Cool] and by the W3C Team in Common HTTP Implementation Problems ([CHIPS], sections 1 and 3):

Short, mnemonic URIs will not break as easily when sent in emails and are in general easier to remember, e.g. when debugging your Semantic Web server.
Once you set up a URI to identify a certain resource, it should remain this way as long as possible. Think about the next ten years. Maybe twenty. Keep implementation-specific bits and pieces such as .php and .asp out of your URIs, you may want to change technologies later.
Issue your URIs in a way that you can manage. One good practice is to include the current year in the URI path, so that you can change the URI-schema each year without breaking older URIs. Keeping all 303 URIs on a dedicated subdomain, e.g. http://id.acme.com/alice, eases later migration of the URI-handling server.

4.5. Linking

All the URIs related to a single real-world object—resource identifier, RDF document URL, HTML document URL—should be explicitly linked with each other to help information consumers understand their relation. For example, in the 303 URI solution for ACME, there are three URIs related to Alice:

Identifier for Alice, the person
Alice's homepage
RDF document with description of Alice

Two of them are Web document URLs. The RDF document located at http://www.acme.com/data/alice might contain these statements (expressed in N3):

    foaf:page <http://www.acme.com/people/alice>;
    rdfs:isDefinedBy <http://www.acme.com/data/alice>;

    a foaf:Person;
    foaf:name "Alice";
    foaf:mbox <mailto:alice@acme.com>;

The document makes statements about Alice, the person, using the resource identifier. The first two properties relate the resource identifier to the two document URLs. The foaf:page statement links it to the HTML document. This allows RDF-aware clients to find a human-readable version of the resource, and at the same time, by linking the page to its topic, defines useful metadata about that HTML document. The rdfs:isDefinedBy statement links the person to the document containing its RDF description and allows RDF browsers to distinguish this main resource from other auxiliary resources that just happen to be mentioned in the document. We use rdfs:isDefinedBy instead of its weaker superproperty rdfs:seeAlso because the content at /data/alice is authoritative. The remaining statements are the actual white pages data.

The HTML document at http://www.acme.com/people/alice should contain in its header a <link /> element that points to the corresponding RDF document:

<html lang="en">
    <title>Alice's Homepage</title>
    <link rel="alternate" type="application/rdf+xml"
          title="RDF Version"
          href="http://www.acme.com/data/alice" />
  </head> ...

This allows RDF-aware Web clients to discover the RDF information. The approach is recommended in the RDF/XML specification ([RDFXML], section 9). If the information on the Web page differs significantly from the RDF version, then we recommend using rel="meta" instead of rel="alternate".

The following illustration shows how the RDF and HTML documents should relate the three URIs to each other:

The RDF and HTML documents should relate the URIs to each other

4.6. Implementation

The W3C's Semantic Web Best Practices and Deployment Working Group has published a document that describes how to implement the solutions presented here on the Apache Web server. The Best Practice Recipes for Publishing RDF Vocabularies [Recipes] mostly discuss the publication of RDF vocabularies, but the ideas can also be applied to other kinds of small RDF datasets that are published from static files.

5. Examples from the Web

Not all projects that work with Semantic Web technologies make their data available on the Web. But a growing number of projects follow the practices described here. This section gives a few examples.

ECS Southampton. The School of Electronics and Computer Science at University of Southampton has a Semantic Web site that employs the 303 solution and is a great example of Semantic Web engineering. It is documented in the ECS URI System Specification [ECS]. Separate subdomains are used for HTML documents, RDF documents, and resource identifiers. Take these examples:

URI for Wendy Hall, the person
HTML page about Wendy Hall
RDF about Wendy Hall

Entering the first URI into a normal Web browser redirects to an HTML page about Wendy Hall. It presents a Web view of all available data on her. The page also links to her URI and to her RDF document.

D2R Server is an open-source application that can be used to publish data from relational databases on the Semantic Web in accordance with these guidelines. It employs the 303 solution and content negotiation. For example, the D2R Server publishing the DBLP Bibliography Database publishes several 100k bibliographical records and information about their authors. Example URIs, again connected via 303 redirects:

URI for Chris Bizer, the person
HTML page about Chris Bizer

The RDF document for Chris Bizer is a SPARQL query result from the server's SPARQL endpoint:


The SPARQL query encoded in this URI is:

DESCRIBE <http://www4.wiwiss.fu-berlin.de/dblp/resource/person/315759>

This shows how a SPARQL endpoint can be used as a convenient method of serving resource descriptions.

Semantic MediaWiki is an open-source Semantic Wiki engine. Authors can use special wiki syntax to put semantic attributes and relationships into wiki articles. For each article, the software generates a 303 URI that identifies the article's topic, and serves RDF descriptions generated from the attributes and relationships. Semantic MediaWiki drives the OntoWorld wiki. It has an article about the city of Karlsruhe:

the article, an HTML document
the city of Karlsruhe
RDF description of Karlsruhe

The URI of the RDF description is not cool, because it exposes the implementation (php) and refers redundantly to RDF in the path and in the query. A better URI would be for example http://ontoworld.org/rdf/Karlsruhe. There is an effort underway [SMW] that calls for the adoption of Semantic MediaWiki as the software that runs Wikipedia. This would turn Wikipedia into a repository of identifiers with community-agreed descriptions.

6. Other Resource Naming Proposals

Many other approaches have been suggested over the years. While most of them are appropriate in special circumstances, we feel that they do not fit the criteria from Section 3, which are to be on the Web and don't be ambiguous. Therefore they are not adequate as general solutions for building a standards-based, non-fragmented, decentralized Semantic Web. We will discuss two of these approaches in some detail.

6.1. New URI Schemes

HTTP URIs already identify Web resources and Web documents, not other kinds of resources. Shouldn't we create a new URI scheme to identify other resources? Then we could easily distinguish them from Web documents just by looking at the first characters of the URI. For example, the info scheme can be used to identify books based on a LCCN number: info:lccn/2002022641.

Here are examples of such new URI schemes. A more complete list is provided by Thompson and Orchard in URNs, Namespaces and Registries [TAG-URNs].

To be truly useful, a new scheme must also define a protocol how to access more information about the identified resource. For example, the ftp:// URI scheme identifies resourcse (files on an FTP server), and also comes with a protocol for accessing them (the FTP protocol).

Some of the new URI schemes provide no such protocol at all. Others provide a Web service that allows retrieval of descriptions using the HTTP protocol. The identifier is passed to the service, which looks up the information in a central database or in a federated way. The problem here is that a failure in this service renders the system unusable.

Another drawback can be a dependence on a standardization body. To register new parts in the info: space, a standardization body has to be contacted. This, or paying a license fee before creating a new URI, slows down adoption. In cases a standardization body is desirable to ensure that all URIs are unique (e.g. with ISBNs). But this can be achieved using HTTP URIs inside an HTTP namespace owned and managed by the standardization organization.

The problems with new URI schemes are discussed at length in URNs, Namespaces and Registries.

6.2. Reference by Description

This approach radically solves the URI problem by doing away with URIs altogether: Instead of naming resources with a URI, anonymous nodes are used, and are described with information that allows us to find the right one. A person, for example, could be described with her name, date of birth, and social security number. These pieces of information should be sufficient to uniquely identify a person.

A popular practice is the use of a person's email address as a uniquely identifying piece of information. The foaf:mbox property is used in Friend of a Friend (FOAF) profiles for this purpose. In OWL, this kind of property is known as an Inverse Functional Property (IFP). When an agent encounters two resources with the same email address, it can infer that both refer to the same person and can treat them as one.

But how to be on the Web with this approach? How to enable agents to download more data about resources we mention? There is a best practice to achieve this goal: Provide not only the IFP of the resource (e.g. the person's email address), but also an rdfs:seeAlso property that points to a Web address of an RDF document with further information about it. We see that HTTP URIs are still used to identify the location where to download more information.

Furthermore, we now need several pieces of information to refer to a resource, the IFP value and the RDF document location. The simple act of linking by using a URI has become a process involving several moving parts, and this increases the risk of broken links and makes implementation more cumbersome.

Regarding FOAF's practice of avoiding URIs for people, we agree with Tim Berners-Lee's advice: “Go ahead and give yourself a URI. You deserve it!”

7. Conclusion

Resource names on the Semantic Web should fulfill two requirements: First, a description of the identified resource should be retrievable with standard Web technologies. Second, a naming scheme should not confuse documents and the things described by the documents.

We have described two approaches that fulfill these requirements, both based on the HTTP URI scheme and protocol. One is to use the 303 HTTP status code to redirect from the resource identifier to the describing document. One is to use “hash URIs” to identify resources, exploiting the fact that hash URIs are retrieved by dropping the part after the hash and retrieving the other part.

The requirement to distinguish between resources and their descriptions increases the need for coordination between multiple URIs. Some useful techniques are: embedding links to RDF data in HTML documents, using RDF statements to describe the relationship between the URIs, and using content negotiation to redirect to an appropriate description of a resource.

8. Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Tim Berners-Lee who helped us understanding the TAG solution by answering chat requests. Special thanks go to Stuart Williams (HP Labs, member of TAG), who reviewed this document thouroughly and provided essential feedback about many sentences that were (accidentially) contrary to the TAG's view. We wish to thank everyone who has reviewed drafts of this document, especially Chris Bizer and Gunnar AAstrand Grimnes.

This work was supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Technology (bmb+f), (Grants 01 IW C01, Project EPOS: Evolving Personal to Organizational Memories; and 01 AK 702B, Project InterVal: Internet and Value Chains) and by the European Union IST fund (Grant FP6-027705, Project Nepomuk).

9. References

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10. Change log

29 November 2006
1.0 Initial Version.
9 August 2007
1.1 Revised Version. Changes based on TAG review.