May 18, 2011
Your URLs provide an opportunity to let search engines and people know what your page is about. Conversely, if you don’t pay attention to your URLs, they may provide no value for your site’s SEO (search engine optimization) or for your human visitors, either. Badly designed URLs may even trip up search engines or make them think you’re spammy.
Include a few important keywords in your URLs.
A keyword-infused URL can:
* Help visitors see that the page they’re on is really what they’re looking for. Would you rather see example.com/blog/219058 or example.com/blog/cute-puppies? People will see your URL in search results, at the top of their web browser while they’re on your page, and any place where they may save the URL for themselves – like in bookmarks, or an email.
*Give search engines one more indication of what your page is about, and what queries it should rank for. A URL without keywords won’t hurt you, but it’s a missed opportunity. A competitor who’s placed relevant keywords in his URLs may rank higher than you for those keywords.
“If you have got a three, four or five words in your URL, that can be perfectly normal. As it gets a little longer, then it starts to look a little worse. Now, our algorithms typically will just weight those words less and just not give you as much credit.” -Matt Cutts of Google
*Keep your URLs to fewer than 115 characters.
*Research shows that people click on short URLs in search results twice as often as long ones. Shorter URLs are also easier to share on social sites like Twitter and StumbleUpon.
*Long URLs can look like spam. As the URL gets longer, the ranking weight given to each word in the URL gets spread thin, and becomes less valuable for any specific word.
You can manually check the character count of all your URLs to make sure they’re not too long. The AboutUs Site Report can do it automatically, and point out any URLs that are longer than 115 characters.
*Don’t use more than a few query parameters in your URLs.
In a URL, a ? or & indicates that a parameter (like id=1234) will follow.
Here’s an example of an okay URL (the kind you use to track your marketing in Google Analytics) with 1 query parameter:
Bad URL with too many query parameters:
Too many query parameters can cause search engine robots to enter a loop and keep crawling the same pages over and over again. You could end up with search engines failing to index some of your most important pages.
*Use hyphens instead of underscores in your URLs.
Search engines see underscores as a character. This means that your keywords will be seen as a single long keyword, and you’ll lose any SEO benefit they could have incurred. A hyphen, however, is seen as a space that separates words. Hyphens are better for SEO because they allow search engines to interpret your web page as relevant for more keyword phrases. That said, Wikipedia’s links have underscores, and they seem to be doing okay in search results 🙂
Also, people can’t see underscores in a URL when the link is underlined, as many links on the Web are. So hyphens are friendlier for people, and make your site more usable.
So… example.com/adorable-kitten-pics is better than example.com/adorable_kitten_pics
*Keep all of your important content less than 3 subfolders deep.
A subfolder is a folder that is visible in a URL between two slashes. For example, in http://www.example.com/articles/name-of-page, articles is a subfolder and name-of-page is an article in that subfolder.
When it comes to subfolders, search engines assume that content living many folders away from the root domain (like example.com) is less important. So it’s best to organize all of your important content so each URL has no more than two subfolders.
Here’s another way to think about it: Make sure your URLs have 3 or fewer slashes (/) after the domain name. Here is an example URL that is a web page that is two subfolders deep:
Bonus: Using subfolders allows you to use “content drilldown” in Google Analytics to easily view data for all the pages in a given subfolder.
*Don’t have too many subdomains.
A subdomain, or directory, is something that comes before the domain name in a URL. For example: http://blog.example.com. Technically speaking, www. is actually a subdomain.
Too many subdomains can cause problems for search engine optimization. For more information, read Multiple Subdomains: Classic SEO Mistake.
How to Change Your URLs
Ideally, you’d set up a search-friendly URL structure when you first create your website. Then it just works for you without having to lift another finger.
Even if your website is already built, you should be able to change your URL structure – but it could be a pain in the neck. Most content management systems (CMS) allow you to change your default URL structure, or individual URLs for pages. You’ll need to find that setting or option in your platform. If you use WordPress, see WordPress: Built for SEO for details on how to enable SEO-friendly URLs, or “permalinks,” as WordPress calls them.
Warning! If you change existing URLs on your website, make sure to permanently redirect (using a 301 redirect) the old URL to the new one. You want to send people and search engines to the right place, not to a 404 error page. Keep in mind that while the 301 redirect will get people and search engine spiders to the right page, a small percentage of the PageRank or link juice from the linking page will be lost along the way.
Is it worth the effort to change your URLs? The above best practices for URLs can help your site’s SEO, but as with other changes on your website, it’s good to consider both the potential costs and benefits of the change. For example, the folks at SEOByTheSea.com know what they’re doing, but opted to leave their URL structure as is – without keywords – because it would take a huge amount of work for a 6-year-old website with hundreds or thousands of pages to make the change. The site would also lose some link juice and PageRank due to so many redirects. In other words, there are tradeoffs.
Beyond changing the URLs on your website, you can sometimes change the URLs for your listings on other websites. For example, social sites like Facebook allow you to set a “vanity URL” to change a page with a URL like Facebook.com/pages/Company-Name/123456789 to Facebook.com/CompanyName. See 7 Simple Facebook Tricks for instructions. Keep an eye out for this option on other websites if you want to make it easier for people to find you there.
Check out how your home page looks to search engines and people with the free Home Page Analysis. Want a deeper look at all your site’s pages? Try an AboutUs Site Report.