URLs are one of the most important elements of online navigation. They tell web browsers where to go and clue users in to the type of site they’re about to visit. They’re a crucial element of user experience and SEO positioning—in fact, some companies spend months and thousands of dollars just picking out the right domain to use. But in terms of onsite optimization and day-to-day management of site URLs, many companies ultimately fall short.
There are actually many ways you can optimize your site’s URLs for SEO, and all of them actively improve user experience in the process. Make sure you use as many of these strategies as possible to keep your URLs in full compliance with Google’s standards.
There are two types of URLs; the type that fits neatly into the left end of your URL bar so that you can easily communicate the chain of letters to another person, and the type that fills up the entire bar and then some, filled with confusing random digits, numbers, and symbols. For SEO, shorter and simpler URLs are always better, and there are a number of reasons why.
First, Google has an easier time interpreting shorter, cleaner URLs. It derives the purpose of the page in part from the phrasing in the URL, so the extended complicated chain of random numbers does nothing for you. In addition, shorter URLs tend to get more clicks than their complicated counterparts, and higher click through rates always lead to higher ranks. And as an added bonus, shorter URLs are more likely to get shared—meaning you’ll see more traffic from other sources.
There are a handful of formatting choices you’ll need to make to appease Google. First, make sure all your letters are lower case. URLs are not case-specific, so you might as well avoid confusion and keep things simple by consistently keeping all your letters lower case. Second, you’ll want to include spaces between words rather than running them all together in a string, but you need to be careful how you do this. Google will read hyphens, but it ignores underscores, so be sure to use hyphens to separate any words in your URL.
Back when keywords were the all-important elements of an SEO campaign, it paid to stuff your URLs full of your most important target keywords. Today, that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, it’s important to ensure your URL accurately describes the content on the page. In one to five words or so, the tail end of your URL should summarize the type of content a user is likely to find there (longer if the URL is for a blog post or article). This will help Google contextualize your site and increase your domain authority as a result.
While most people think of site navigation in terms of the menus and nav bars on your homepage, it’s equally important to clarify your navigation using your URL structures. This is done automatically in most back end systems, but it pays to double check. Each page should be categorized based on its parent pages in an extending format, using “/” to separate each layer. For example, a URL should start with the root domain followed by a “/” and the first parent page, followed by a “/” and the first sub-page, and so on.
Many sites use parameters as an addition to the end of a URL in order to generate variable content. For example, a site may add “/?locationid=20398” to the end of the URL to generate a unique ID. In general use, parameters should be avoided wherever possible. They won’t kill your SEO campaign, but they won’t help you either. They add needless complexity and should be replaced.
Each page on your site should have only one associated URL. If it has two associated URLs, Google considers it a duplicate page—and duplicate pages are a major no-no after the Panda update. Fortunately, you can fix this easily by setting up a 301 redirect that leads the alternate URLs to the original. Alternatively, you can set up canonical tags to instruct Google which version of the page it should consider and which ones should be ignored.
It’s also important to note that the standard and www version of a URL are registered as separate URLs unless you take corrective action. For example, http://thispage.com is read as a separate page from http://www.thispage.com, and that’s a problem because if you’ve established both URLs, Google will read your page as two duplicates. The easiest way to correct this is by using 301 redirects, but whichever format you pick—standard or www—make sure it stays consistent throughout all your pages.
Certain sections of your website—such as your blog or on your product pages—may require multiple pages of content. In this case, most developers use paginated URLs that end in something like “?page=1”. This type of pagination isn’t necessarily bad, but each paginated page should be treated with a canonical tag to clarify their relationship to the master page.
URLs aren’t quite as technical as they appear, so don’t be intimidated. The bulk of this advice can be applied easily with an intuitive back end system (like WordPress) or by anyone with a fleeting familiarity of site structure. Occasionally, you’ll have to double check to ensure no duplicate pages have emerged, but for the most part, once you apply a one-time standard protocol for your URL creation, you’ll be in good shape for the foreseeable future of your SEO campaign.