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:
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.
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.