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What's in an SEO-friendly URL? Best Practices for URLs

Published on: 
February 17, 2021
Updated on: 
September 18, 2021
by
Tory Gray
Tory Gray

Let’s discuss URL best practices: frankly, it’s one of the elements of SEO that is easiest to get right (and yet, so SO many issues out there.)

SEO-friendly URLs can & should: 

  • Describe your content/purpose
  • Help you avoid duplicate content
  • Make your pages easier to share, remember, and type into a browser
  • Help your web visitors navigate your site
  • Increase search engine ranking for sought after keywords- AKA improve SERP visibility
  • Improve readability
  • Avoid site speed & security issues

The way that a search engines robot or crawler reads your URL (or: Uniform Resource Locator) can be different than how a human reads it. While you are structuring your website, (say, defining your Information Architecture,) it is very important to create a URL structure that will please your mechanical visitors as well as your human ones. URLs that are too long, include underscores, capital letters, arbitrary numbers or even just look a “little weird” can cause problems in a couple of different ways. 

Bad URLs can: 

  • Hinder the user experience
  • Create duplicate content
  • Expose file extensions, security vulnerabilities
  • Slow down site speed
  • Reduce SEO effectiveness

Here’s a guide for insight on what you should look out for when defining your URL structure.

But first, let’s quickly review the parts of a URL:

Diagram of all the parts of a URL
The Parts of a URL

Protocol:

The very first part of the URL - the “http” part of "http://www.example.com." If the website is using the secure protocol, it’ll be “https.” S = secure (at least… more secure.)

Subdomain:

If there are multiple periods in your domain, you’ve got a subdomain. It's the “www.” part of "www.example.com."

  • Subdomains are not required. For example, this website actually loads without one (https://thegray.company); it’s included in this image for context.
  • The most popular subdomain is “www.”
  • There can be multiple subdomains.
  • Classic example: ads.google.com, www.google.com, support.google.com, etc.
  • Subdomains are, technically speaking, entirely different websites. They are related to the core-domain, though, and are usually used to organize different parts of your business and/or different platforms (e.g. blog.yoursite.com - which we do NOT recommend.)
  • Subdomains can be nested. I’m sure you’ve seen promotional signs with sites like “www.yoursite.wordpress.com”.
  • We do not recommend doing this (if only because, well - it’s unnecessary, it looks weird, and it very likely confuses people.)

Domain/Root Domain:

Your domain name that you (most likely) directly purchased.

Top-level Domain (TLD):

.com, co.uk, .org, .gov are all extremely popular ones, but there are 1000s available to choose from. If and when a TLD is country-specific (say, .de for Germany, and .co.uk for the United Kingdom), it's called a ccTLD, or country-code top-level domain.

Path:

Really, path describes anything after the first slash after the domain name (including folders.) This is sometimes also called a “relative URL.”

Folder/Sub-folder:

URLs often have a nesting organizational structure. In the example image above, /blog/ is a folder. If we organized blog content by the year it was posted (e.g. /blog/2020/whats-in-an-seo-friendly-url), the /2020/ part would be a sub-folder. It’s basically just the nested part of this parent/child URL structure often used for category and subcategory structuring (picture breadcrumb nesting.)

Slug:

The same thing as the path, but it specifically refers to the name of the URL after the final slash - or the specific page you are viewing. In the case of assets (images, JS, CSS, etc.) the URL slug is the actual filename of that asset.

Parameters/Query Parameters:

The question mark in a URL, and anything after it (hashes being an exception to this rule.) URL Parameters are dynamic URLs that can change page content, but don't always.

  • Parameters can nest, and when they do so, you’ll see ampersands in the URL.
  • Example: ?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&s=search-query
  • All additional parameters are added via additional ampersands.

Hash / Anchor:

The pound sign in a URL, and anything after it.  Google will not be able to access unique URLs with hashes in them; only the part of the URL without the hash will be considered. Therefore, they specifically recommends against using hashes in URLs.

That said, the use of hashes is perfectly fine in some cases:

  • When the hash is used as an anchor, and you are just organizing content within the page for greater readability.
  • When you are creating content that shouldn’t be in Google anyway. This is a fun one actually - consider actively using hashes for those elements you don’t want to be accessible.
no-hashtags

With that in mind - now that we’re all speaking the same “language”, let’s get back to important URL considerations:

URL Capitalization 

Capitalization directly affects the way that search engines index your site. While domains (eg "example.com") are not case sensitive by themselves, URLs are. So when a search engine sees www.yoursite.com/Section-One/ and www.yoursite.com/section-one/ it indexes them as two different web pages. 

Two different versions of the same page with the same content will be flagged as duplicate content, which can & does create SEO issues.

Pro-Tip: duplicate content is an issue because - once upon a time - spammers would steal content from other sites & put it on their own sites. Google started penalizing sites with the same content on different URLs to stop this bad practice. URL casing issues are really just a by-product of this original fix.

Similarly, if your URL has uppercase letters, and a user links to a lowercase letters, it could end up as a 404 error - a rare occurrence, but it does happen.

Quick solve? Enforce casing & redirect from one version to the other. I strongly recommend all lower case, all the time. (Aside - you can ignore casing issues in parameters.)

URL Length (Too Many Nested Folders, Arbitrary Characters, Query Parameters) 

When optimizing a web page for a certain keyword, you want to make sure that there isn't a lot of necessary “filler.” Generally aim for less than or equal to 75 characters (including your domain name) whenever possible. Long URLs are not (at all) inherently better.

As a human, it might be safe to assume that www.yoursite.com/08/09/2011/url-best-practices/ means that yoursite.com published an article about URL best practices on August the 9th, 2011. Search engines will see this and take into account the numbers as well as the words.

The importance of the words can be diluted by the presence of the numbers - and folders - preceding it. Plus - if date is old - the content could be devalued. 

General rule of thumb: important pages on your site should have no more than 3 folders. Don’t include folders when they aren’t helpful!

Query parameters increase the overall length of the URL and can lead to duplicate content issues. How faceted URLs on e-commerce websites look is a common problem on e-commerce websites when sorting different products and categories. 

  • Example: /product-category?color=blue&size=medium vs. /product-category?size=medium&color=blue. This is essentially the exact same page with the parameters in the opposite order.
  • Note that proper use of the canonical tag can fix these issues, especially for large & complex sites which may require filtering via parameters. 

Many people recommend dropping sentence articles or so-called "stop words" (e.g. “the”, “a”, etc.) from URLs. We don’t feel strongly about this either way - just keep overall URL length in mind, if and when you do keep them.

More on folder structure, below.

Shorter URLs are also nicer to look at, easier to understand, easier to memorize, read to someone over the phone, type into a mobile device, etc. 

Hyphens (Dashes) vs Underscores 

The short and sweet difference between these separators:

  • Hyphens are seen as spaces (e.g. “url-best-practices” is “url best practices”)
  • Underscores are seen as… underscores. Which are necessary when you are searching for names of things that do actually include underscores.

So the short and sweet recommendation here is: always use hyphens to separate words in URLs.

Caveat: underscore usage in parameters is fine. Parameters really have their own set of rules that are separate!

File Extensions in URLs 

Having file extensions, like .html, .php, .asp and so on, at the end of your URLs does not appear to have a direct effect on your web page's search engine ranking. That said, there are reasons to remove file extensions from your URLs.

One reason is security. The more information that a malicious user or bot has about how your website is built, the better chance they have of figuring out how to hack it (to be clear, this is not hard to determine anyway, but why make it easier on them?)

Another reason to remove file extensions is the longevity of that URL - with them, every time you change your website’s platform, or the based language, the URL must inherently change. But if URLs are extentionless, they don’t inherently have to change when the technology that drives the changes.

File/Path Structure 

The architecture of your site is very important for many reasons. The way your files are structured makes a difference in how your website is crawled by search engines, as well as “surfed” by a user.

utilize-folders-that-make-sense-for-your-site

A good rule of thumb to follow is to try to have your most important content within two or three clicks (and folders, as mentioned above) of the home page. Pages that are placed closer to your home page will gain more SEO equity, and therefore more ability to rank. 

Proper folder structure should be used, so any pages nested under /products/ should include the folder in their URL, e.g. www.yoursite.com/a-great-product/ should be at www.yoursite.com/products/a-great-product/. This aids usability/user experience in that users always know where they are located on your site. 

(Proper folder structure is, in essence, a UX and SEO-friendly URL structure.)

Some sites try to get around the “3 click/folder” rule by making all URLs top-level (i.e. no use of subfolders, with all URL slugs directly after the top-level domain.)

  • Example: your-site.com/product-name-here, and yoursite.com/blog-name-here
  • We really don’t recommend this, except on extremely small sites. This solution:
  • Does not scale well
  • Can contribute to site speed issues (the more pages you have)
  • Makes reporting in site performance - especially key pages or page types - unnecessarily complicated

Instead, we recommend organizing folders by the function they serve on your site, e.g.:

  • /blog
  • /products
  • /categories (please do not include category names in product URLs - this is really critical for sites with products that can fit into multiple categories! This creates unnecessary duplicate content.)
  • /services/service-name
  • etc.

Keywords in URLs

It’s no secret that including your target keyword in your URL can help your page rank for that keyword. With that in mind:

  • Do your research. Know what pages you are attempting to rank for what keywords, and clearly - and concisely - include them in your URL name.
  • Don’t overdo it. This is really, really easy to do. Especially on large sites with nested folders.

Here’s how that happens:

  • Let’s say you sell furniture, so your first folder organizes furniture by a room, /dining-furniture/ for example.
  • Then you want to add a folder for tables: /dining-furniture/tables.
  • Maybe you sell Amish furniture, so suddenly your URLs are /amish-dining-furniture/amish-tables.
  • If you nest product URLs under category names - which some CMS systems force you to do - suddenly your URL is /amish-dining-furniture/amish-tables/the-monica-amish-round-14-seat-with-leaves-table. That’s way too long! And way too much usage of the keyword “Amish”!

With that in mind, URL folder paths, in particular, should be kept as simple as possible.

  • Instead, include your key terms in the final slugs (e.g. the product name, and the blog post name.)
  • And still - keep it clear and concise. Also, to state the obvious - direct and accurate!

Keyword stuffing your URLs will not make any modern algorithm happy, and your search engine results will suffer accordingly!

"SEO best practices for URLs" are one of the first things someone will discover when they begin to explore search engine optimization, given that URLs are a ranking factor. It is a very simple idea, but it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole and create lots of unintended complications for yourself.

The good news is that once your URL issues have been resolved, you can create 301 redirects from the old URL versions to the new ones. This ensures that any pages pointing to the old URLs will resolve permanently to the new, optimized versions. 

And fortunately, today most CMSs (Content Management Systems) are built with simple, automated URL structures, so getting URLs "right" can be as simple as including the right keywords in the right places.

Do you need help creating the best URL structure to improve your brand's ranking signals in Google search?  Contact us today!

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