URL Structure And SEO

21 comments

The URLs of your website are a lot like the bricks and mortar of your house – they hold the different layers and materials together and give a coherent shape to the entire structure. URLs essentially underpin your whole site; without them there would be no means of traveling from one page to the other or joining various pages together to gather a coherent collection of web pages into a single website.

Unsurprisingly, URLs are one of the most important of all on-page SEO elements, and the way in which they are constructed can make or break an optimization campaign. If you’re one of the lucky few site owners with a site designed with SEO in mind, the likelihood is that you’ve already had more than one lengthy meeting with your web designer about the best way to form URL structures. Even then, you will need to revisit the topic of URL structure and its impact on your SEO efforts time and time again as your site grows and develops. You may have factored keywords into the equation at the design stage, but have you also factored in keywords for new or likely product lines to be introduced after the launch of the site? The changing popularity of certain keywords will also dictate URL content and maybe necessitate changes to the phrases used in the syntax of the URL for key landing pages.

Unfortunately, not all websites are built with SEO in mind, making the task of URL optimization a tricky one when your thoughts turn to improved organic rankings. If your site has more than a dozen or so pages, renaming each page and changing your entire URL and navigation structure becomes a massive task.

Whatever stage you are at, trial and error has shown that there are a few easy ways you can optimize your URL structures for better search engine placements. The following points summarize the best practices I have observed while working on client sites, but if you have any to add, please do so in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

1. Size Matters

The shorter the URL, the more successful it will be, both in terms of web rankings and ease of use for the end user (this includes people copying the URL for link purposes). If a URL string is long, the weight and relevance of each word in the URL is diluted. If your URLs are keyword-rich, including too many other words or phrases means that the importance of the keyword is lost amidst the other words and phrases. Compare these two URLs:

www.buymystuff.com/brown-leather-lounge-chair.htm
www.buymystuff.com/store/chairs/leather-chairs/lounge-chairs/chair006888767.htm

The first URL is succinct, has the keywords “leather lounge chair” in, but no surplus syntax to dilute the importance of these words, and is easy for the user to read, copy, and paste. The second URL is by no means complicated compared with some pages generated by shopping carts, but it is longer and more unwieldy and the keywords ‘leather lounge chair’ are lost amidst directory names and other phrases, reducing their perceived importance.

With an excess of unnecessary phrases and a lack of a coherent structure, it’s also possible that some of the URL could be chopped off when being copied for a link. If you have an e-commerce site, a shorter URL (such as example 1) is also easier to read out to someone over the phone, scribble down from memory for a client visiting your store, or print on a business card.

2. Description

A good URL will describe the content of the page. A potential visitor should be able to see the URL address in the search results or their browser address bar and make an easy guess as to the content of the page. A descriptive URL is also much easier to work with when you’re trying to pinpoint problems in development and testing. Something like cat/2234/abc is a lot more difficult to pin down than /brand/sony.

3. Be Sensitive To Case

URLs can be constructed using upper and lowercase or a mixture of both. Mixing the two or following standard grammar rules such as using a capital letter for a name can make your site structure unnecessarily complicated. You also run the risk of losing visitors who forget to use the required capital letter mid-way through the URL and then can’t access the page. The rule of thumb is stick to lowercase throughout. If you are redeveloping your URLs and come across pages using uppercase, create a permanent 301 redirect to a lowercase version to avoid confusion.

4. Use Hyphens

There are no longer any hard and fast rules that say hyphens are better than underscores, but using a hyphen instead of an underscore (_) is much more human-friendly, making it easier for your intended visitors to remember the page address. You may also want to opt for a plus (+) sign to join up multiple words in the URL. Avoid other characters such as spaces and ampersand (&) signs.

5. Stick With One Structure

When you have decided on a URL structure, put that thinking into practice across the site, not just in one or two categories. Having the same rules throughout – such as always using a hyphen in multiple-word URLs – will make future development much easier as there will be a standard convention to follow. If your URL structure is globally used, site visitors will also find it much easier to understand how information is organized and stored (and therefore where they are most likely to find the information they are searching for).

6. Your Choice Of File Extension Matters

Your most common file extensions will probably be .html, .php, or .asp – Google’s Matt Cutts has gone on record as saying the search engine is happy to crawl any of those pages and it doesn’t really matter which extension you choose of the three. However, he does warn against using extensions such as .exe, .dll, and .bin. These extensions signify mostly binary data, so are largely ignored by the search engine crawlers.

Keep these tips in mind when you are creating or revising your URL structure and your efforts are sure to bear fruit in increased ease of use of your website.

About the Author

Rebecca is the managing director of search engine optimization agency Dakota Digital a full-service agency offering SEO, online PR, web copywriting, media relationship management, and social media strategy. Rebecca works directly with each client to increase online visibility, brand profile, and search engine rankings. She has headed a number of international campaigns for large brands.

Add Your Comments

  • (will not be published)

21 Comments

  1. Rebecca, This is a great summary. A few comments, though: 1) I wouldn't use + in a URL. This has to do with various encoding problems it can present. It's easier to use dashes and underscores, and there's no advantage to +. + is also -technically- the same as an encoded space. Why the inventors of the WWW decided to make a special exception for it, I do not know. I believe a %20 is the same thing. Spaces work as well, when they're quoted (though this is probably incorrect). Anything that's ever encoded is much more likely to get mangled by browsers, parsers, sanitizers, aliens, etc. They're tasty when it comes to bugs. 2) Historically, I also do throw IDs into URLs. Our new CMS platform obviates the need for it. eCommerce stuff still uses them. IDs generally make it easier to migrate content to a new URL or a new page down the road because it's a primary key/identifier. It's a tossup, because everything you've said is totally true. /Foo/Bar.html is much better than ... /Foo-C1/Bar-P2.html But once you use just copy, it creates a big mess if you want to move things around. No more ID, and this makes it harder for programmers. -- Jaimie Sirovich President SEO Egghead, Inc. RELEASED: Professional Search Engine Optimization with PHP & ASP.NET (Wrox Press) http://www.seoegghead.com/our-seo-book/search-engine-optimization-with-php.seo http://www.seoegghead.com/our-seo-book/search-engine-optimization-with-asp-net.seo

  2. Thanks for the insightful article.

  3. I think URL structures make a very significant impact. I have noticed that short and sweet urls tend to do much better in search results that very long keyword stuffed urls.

  4. Thought I should add that you'd want to go no deeper than 3 directory levels, and if you're no familiar with canonicalization to look into it.

  5. A concise, straight-forward summary that is a good primer for SEO newbies. Thanks

  6. This is a really good article and features points that we have been debating as part of our SEO strategy, I can use this article as a reference when we have our next meeting. Thanks

  7. Good articles, and i think much better if you take most imformation keywords close to your domain. domain/keywords/../../

  8. Some good points, but really the .html is considered superfluous these days. As is the www. Tim Berners Lee wrote "Cool URIs don't change" and that's sort of the "must read" on the topic. http://www.w3.org/Provider/Style/URI

  9. I'm curious what your opinion is about the effect of establishing multiple URLs (which resolve to a single site) can have on SEO? For example a company named ABC Associates has an established website with a URL of "ABCAssociates.com". The company performs plastic molding and manufactures Drive Cams. Would it benefit them from an SEO perspective to register additional URL's such as "DriveCams.com" and "Plasticmolding.com" and resolve them back to "ABCAssociates.com"?

  10. Thanks, it is very useful for me. but how about an ongoing website? the urls already existed, what if i changed them to new urls? how about the old urls? Thanks. .-= joker´s last blog ..Men and beer in common =-.

  11. "Your Choice Of File Extension Matters" DLL, EXE and BIN as file extensions? I haven't come across them as web pages yet, so it really doesn't matter if they aren't because they're not pages at all. .-= Elmer´s last blog ..10 Most Read SEO Hong Kong Articles of 2009 =-.

  12. Great article - really useful for the SEO newbie and old pros alike. We've written a brief guide on best practices for url structure which goes well with this article - it includes a few extra pointers as well. Hopefully, it will help people to get their site set up in the best possible way: best practices in url structure for best seo performance. Cheers!

  13. [quote]Google’s Matt Cutts has gone on record as saying the search engine is happy to crawl any of those pages and it doesn’t really matter which extension you choose of the three.[/quote] So you say that html, htm, php is valid, but bin etc is not. Then what about .hey, .id22 etc... ?

  14. really nice information for url structure but still i am confusing about this topic. can anybody suggest me? www.test.com/product/old-computer.html or www.test.com/old-computer.html which one is best url structure?

  15. I have seen an improvement on performance of tertiary pages when we have removed necessary directories like /products/. This is great information, thanks for putting this together!

  16. Thanks for Sharing!! Really very informative and Knowledgeable Blog....!!

  17. When forming a URL structure for a website it is essential to have relevant keywords in the URLs. Not only this will help the user in understanding the context of the link, it also has SEO advantages from Search Engine point of view.

  18. @joker - you must put a 301 redirection to your URL's this would help you make changes to ongoing websites without loosing your links.

  19. Thanks for the information. really valuable

  20. I agree that URLs should be descriptive in nature to help users become aware of what the content is for that particular URL. Yes, the shorter the better so keep the main keyword and a bit of tail just enough to give a description of what the page is about.

  21. Sensitive to case is very important. Nothing more annoying than all caps html page. Where the domain is lowercase and the html page is in all caps.