← Back


A small island in the vast internet ocean

Minimal URL encoding


I recently stumbled upon this StackOverflow question while looking at various ID-generation libraries suitable for use in URLs.

The question asks generally about compressing generic byte data into a URL. I was thinking more specifically about ID, e.g. compressing a UUID to the shortest possible representation suitable for use in URLs

The classic answer is to use “base64url” encode (equivalent to classic base64 but using _- instead of +=). base64url encoding uses the following alphabet:


Digging a bit deeper, I found that principally . and ~ can be included “safely” anywhere in the URL giving a “base66” encode:


Having just 2 bits extra, on top of an encoding that is already byte-aligned for every 4 output characters isn’t great. base66 encoding is byte-aligned for every 128 output characters! (losing precious bits in most cases, and almost never improving on base64 because we have to send whole bytes)

But let’s look at all printable ASCII symbols:


It’s clear that ?, /, and # have to be excluded since they have special meaning, indicating start of query-params, path-separation, and start of hash respectively. The hash-part never gets sent to the server, but principally you could do some custom implementation server-side that looks at the raw request path ignoring the “directory” separators and leaving the query string unparsed so that / and ? could be used. However that is not the goal of this exercise.

This leaves us with:


Let’s test what happens to these characters in Chrome and Firefox, with a URL like:


Given the URL above, Firefox sends the following request to the server:


Leaving the symbols !$%&'()*+,-.:;=@[]_|~ unencoded.

Given the URL above, Chrome sends the following request to the server:


Leaving the symbols !$%&'()*+,-.:;=@[]_~ unencoded.

Chrome encodes | whereas Firefox does not. Otherwise they’re the same. Both convert \ to /, which is why I’ve left it out of the “unencoded” character set.

Even though % isn’t encoded when it stands by itself, it cannot be used in a general algorithm since it could be followed by numbers or letters and thus interpreted as a percent-encoded character. Using it in the way shown above also logs an error in the Chrome console when the page is loaded.

I give you the 81 character alphabet of “URL-kludged base81”:


Please don’t use this in production. I’m sure both the URLs and the code below will fail in spectacular ways with just a modicum of exposure to the real world.

A small example is that Github-Flavored Markdown will not include the last character in the URL when autolinking if it is one of ?!.,:*_~ (but will gobble up any non-space characters before that as part of the URL). Note that since _ is listed here this is also a small problem for normal base64url encoding.

More importantly is that the infrastructure you rely on probably isn’t well-equipped to handle these “slightly off” URLs, leaving you to deal with all sorts of weird edge-cases.

Sample code for UUIDs

def encode(number, alphabet):
    result = ''
    len_alphabet = len(alphabet)
    while number > 0:
        result += alphabet[number % len_alphabet]
        number = number // len_alphabet

    return result[::-1]

def decode(encoded_string, alphabet):
    number = 0
    len_alphabet = len(alphabet)
    for i, c in enumerate(reversed(encoded_string)):
        number += alphabet.index(c) * len_alphabet ** i

    return number

from uuid import uuid4

base81_alphabet = "ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz0123456789!$&'()*+,-.:;=@[]_~"
print(encode(int(uuid4()), base81_alphabet))
# Example outputs: 
# _6_Y)[XoG$,~La4D-a$(
# Bd!9&pAmXN$4lG7JV=wa3
# BdJoptB:Jxq2G]7PAe:mE


  • A normal UUIDv4 will have 6-bits that are always the same, taking the information to be encoded down from 128-bits to 122-bits. This is not considered in the above writing.
  • Two other interesting StackOverflow questions on UUIDs specifically: 1 and 2
    Question 1 has an answer getting to a “base74” encoding, which in practice performs about the same my “base81”.
    Question 2 has an answer that suggests using printable unicode characters, giving compression in text but not over-the-wire (which is actually fine for my usecase). One of the issues with that scheme is that users might get confused when they copy/paste the URL and get the encoded version.