So you want to autolink urls...

Finding a url inside a chunk of text is no easy task. Coding Horror and Daring Fireball have covered regular expressions for matching urls in a variety of circumstances. I went with the Coding Horror regular expression, mainly because the Daring Fireball version wasn't around when I was working on this. Using Python's regular expression library, the code to get all the urls in a block of text looks like this:

urlre = re.compile("(\(?https?://[-A-Za-z0-9+&@#/%?=~_()|!:,.;]*[-A-Za-z0-9+&@#/%=~_()|])(\">|</a>)?")
urls = urlre.findall(html)

That pulls out all of the urls in a text and puts them in a list. From there you can iterate through the list and replace the url in the source text with the appropriate html.

But that only works if you're only allowing plain text as input. What if you're using markdown for formatting? In this case there might be urls in the text that are already a part of a link. You don't want to add additional html around these or you'll break the user's formatting. There's two ways you could go, I suppose. You could either process the text before you send it to the markdown processor and add markdown formatting around the urls, or you could look at the html output you get and find the bare urls in that. I went with the latter option. This way the function isn't tied to markdown specifically, and it's useful in more applications.

The obvious case you want to avoid is where the user has entered a normal link as markdown. In that case, the markdown formatting will take care of adding the appropriate html.

<a href="">link</a>

But maybe some helpful user has used markdown to link a url for us. That will output some html like this:

<a href=""></a>

In this case we want to ignore both instances of the url.

Finally, you have to account for the sadistic case. This is the possibility that someone will make a regular markdown link with a given url, then paste in that same url elsewhere in the text. You have to ignore the instance where it's linked legitimately, but catch the instance where it's a bare url and turn it into a link. The resulting html will look like this:

<a href=""></a>

There are two steps to solve this. The first part is the regular expression shown above. This actually has two groups. The first group


matches the url while the second group


matches either "> or </a> after the url, if they're present. When your regular expression has multiple groups urlre.findall returns a list of tuples. The first element of the tuple contains the matched url. There will be an entry in the list for every occurrence of a url in the text, with duplicates included. The second element in the tuple will be either "> or </a> if they are present immediately after the url. If the second element is not an empty string, we know the url is already part of a link, so we can ignore it.

Then there's the sadistic case to contend with. You want to replace a url with a link only when it's not preceded by =" or ">. Instead of using the simple string replace function, the substitute function from the regular expressions library will allow us to only replace certain instances of the url. A negative lookbehind will ensure that the url is replaced only when it's not already part of a link.

The complete autolink function is shown below.

def autolink(html):
    # match all the urls
    # this returns a tuple with two groups
    # if the url is part of an existing link, the second element
    # in the tuple will be "> or </a>
    # if not, the second element will be an empty string
    urlre = re.compile("(\(?https?://[-A-Za-z0-9+&@#/%?=~_()|!:,.;]*[-A-Za-z0-9+&@#/%=~_()|])(\">|</a>)?")
    urls = urlre.findall(html)
    clean_urls = []

    # remove the duplicate matches
    # and replace urls with a link
    for url in urls:
        # ignore urls that are part of a link already
        if url[1]: continue
        c_url = url[0]
        # ignore parens if they enclose the entire url
        if c_url[0] == '(' and c_url[-1] == ')':
            c_url = c_url[1:-1]
        if c_url in clean_urls: continue # We've already linked this url

        # substitute only where the url is not already part of a
        # link element.
        html = re.sub("(?<!(=\"|\">))" + re.escape(c_url), 
                      "<a rel=\"nofollow\" href=\"" + c_url + "\">" + c_url + "</a>",
    return html

Hopefully, a later version of markdown will have autolinking baked right in. If you're using GitHub Flavored Markdown, you've already got it. I haven't seen a Python implementation for that yet, though.

Originally published 2010-02-08 08:07:17