Despite so much noise about the world coming to an end and SEO becoming outmoded, SEO still gets results. While it is certainly true that you should diversify your traffic sources, we all have to cover the basics. Those basics include title tags, meta descriptions, proper tagging (if using WordPress) and making sure that you’re writing for your readers and not the search engines (in other words, don’t keyword stuff). That’s not all, though.
In a recent post on Search Engine Journal writer Clark Boyd blogged about the importance of URL naming in this new era of SEO. He explains that it s a crucial signal of intent that lets search engines know what type of content they should expect to find on a given page. Apart from the anchor text, he tells us, this is the only real way a page can be judged by the search engine prior to visiting it. When you include the fact that many
search engine users also read this before they click a link, that is quite a lot of importance placed on the way a URL is named.
Let’s consider two examples similar to what Boyd mentioned:
EXAMPLE 1: imaginarydomain.com/pets/dogs/removefleas.html
EXAMPLE 2: imaginarydomain.com/pages/599843-a.html
The first example shows us a URL that makes sense if you read it. It could be better if “removefleas.html” were turned into “remove-fleas.html”, but it remains better than Example 2. In the second example, there is not much to indicate what you might find once you arrive at the destination URL.
Not only does a search engine like Google have precious little to work with when analyzing this URL, human visitors might also worry they are ‘going in blind‘ and simply pass it up, choosing another entry the search engine shows them instead. That’s bad news for your site. Instead, Example 1 is easy to read, logical and to the point. That is what you want to emulate.
Boyd lists some keys to creating smooth URLs, too. We will take a look at these points next.
First Off Reconsider Using Subdomains
If you have been creating web pages for any length of time, then you most likely know what a subdomain is. Here’s an example in case you aren’t familiar:
Basically, the subdomain on this imaginary site would be designed to hold all of that site’s content regarding dogs. It sounds like a great plan, but Boyd explains that it isn’t.
The problem here is that search engines view a subdomain as a totally separate URL. There is no real advantage in dividing your efforts this way. It may actually cost you because search engines may perceive your site as being a number of small, low content sites. Page Authority can drop dramatically if you decide to start using subdomains, Boyd says.
Some publishers think that if they use subdomains, they will get a ‘natural’ SEO advantage from Google. For example, sports.domain.com will have a larger impact than domain.com/sports/. Let me tell you that this is, again, a very costly myth, and there are situations when this might result in a disaster.
It should be noted that those with a site penalized by the Panda, RankBrain or Penguin update may be tempted to try re-organzing the content of their site using subdomains, hoping to make back some of the ground they lost. It sounds like a good idea because it would be a shortcut to all of the effort of totally rebuilding a site. However, as I had mentioned in speaking to those who have to rebuild an entire site after an algorithm change, it is better to do the hard work of rebuilding now in a smart way than trying to ‘game the system‘ and be forced to change again later.
Simplicity is a URL’s Best Friend
It seems everyone is embracing zen these days in one way or another and SEO is no exception to this general rule. Simplicity in naming your URL is a part of simplicity in marketing which we regularly recommend. Boyd advises readers to follow the KISS principle. That means ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid‘. Graceful naming of a URL will make it valuable to you because it makes it simple for a human reader to interpret what they will see if they click the link. This could help it get shared more easily or it might simply help people remember it.
Boyd had this to say as an example of the concept:
Consider an ecommerce store that sells garments. Typically, you would want to create three sections, Men’s, Women’s, and Children, and then create the entire URL tree, following a top to bottom hierarchical approach.
So in this case, the URLs of the store should read like domain.com/men/shirts.html or domain.com/women/skirts.html. These URLs are short, easy to remember, and clearly define the purpose of the page. Anyone reading the URL from the browser’s status bar will have a clear idea about the content of the page, and it would encourage him/her to click through and visit your page.
Simple, straightforward URLs avoid confusion. In the past, it might have been seen as a positive thing to have vague URLs so people would go ahead and come visit, but now we know that bounce rates matter. The simpler it is to understand what you have
to offer up front, the lower the chance a visitor will accidentally click your link and then immediately leave, ruining your page and making it look low quality. In the end, a simple URL benefits you, visitors and search engines, too.
Don’t Keyword Stuff a URL
When composing a URL, there is an understandable tendency to put in a high number of keywords or even longtail keyword phrases. After all, this those are the building blocks of SEO. However, Boyd advises against this, saying that search engines will only count the first few words, giving the last keywords a lower level of importance or ignoring them
altogether. To give your URL the highest level of potency, Boyd advises using as few words as you possibly can. It might also be a good idea to keep the URL as easy for a human reader to understand, too.
For example, you should rename domain.com/women-wearables-shorts-spring-collection-fashion-japan.html to domain.com/japan-spring-women-fashion.html. The latter is easier to comprehend, and you’re not losing any value because of a long string of characters.
Also, remember to put important keywords up front without disturbing the meaning and intent of the page. The combination of words should convey a meaning, and the best possible scenario is when you can put the most important words in the beginning.
Exact domains are not always easy to find, so if you use keywords properly when composing the URLs that make up your site, you will see better results. The idea here is get as exact as you can without sacrificing clarity or including too many keywords. Again, simplicity is a smart idea.
Cut Out Dates, Numbers & Other Clutter
Some webmasters believe that having dates in the URL is a good practice. Again opting for simplicity in URL design, Boyd disagrees:
Webmasters have this confusion that having dates in a URL adds authority to the page. This is nothing but a myth. Dates, year of publication, or a random five digit number adds no such ‘search engine alchemy.’
When you use numbers or dates in a URL, it dilutes the overall value of other keywords you are using in the URL of a page.
Extra numbers and other items that are essentially useless should be avoided whenever possible. Diluting a URL’s potency does not do you any favors so, when you can, be sure anyone designing your site for you understands this. Some designers favor numbering of pages or categories for their own ease so make sure you are clear when hiring someone to handle this part of building a site that you would prefer numbers or other symbols were not part of your site’s structure.
Hyphens Can Help You Make a Good Looking URL
Here are 3 examples of ways that a site owner might compose URLs which contain a keyword phrase:
EXAMPLE 1: imaginarydomain.com/fishing/alaskafishingtrips.html
EXAMPLE 2: imaginarydomain.com/fishing/alaska_fishing_trips.html
EXAMPLE 3: imaginarydomain.com/fishing/alaska+fishing+trips.html
EXAMPLE 4: imaginarydomains.com/fishing/alask-fishing-trips.html
Each of these examples shown are possible. However, there is one among them that works best, according to Boyd’s advice. The first example could be difficult for a search engine to parse and should be avoided. Search engines, he tells us, have ways to determine “separators” in a URL. He says that examples 2 and 3 are unneccessarily complicated when, as shown in example 4, hyphens work just fine.
Hyphens are also easy to read and easy for a person to remember since most people can find the hyphen quicker on the keyboard quicker than they can find the underscore. Visitors using a mobile phone to enter a URL into a web browser will also find the hyphen easier to work find on their phone’s keyboard.
Avoid Issues by Choosing Static URLs
Dynamic URLs have long been debated among SEO practitioners. Many people believe that characters such as & or ? in a URL will weaken it and cause problems. They believe the same things about ID sessions. Boyd says that while this is not necessarily true, but there are issues here. Dynamic URLs are, as their name implies, prone to being changed often. This means that if the search engine indexes the page, it may not be there later when a visitor comes in or the search engine’s bot “check up” on your page. This will cause problems and is definitely not a good thing. Patel goes on to say:
Stick to static URLs whenever possible because a human visitor will remember it, and a search bot can interpret it more easily. However, if you must use a dynamically generated URL, ensure that the number of dynamic parameters are minimum, and the address doesn’t change by a huge fraction every other day.
This all ties right back into simplicity and thinking towards making your URLs easier for both search engines and living people. While you can get by with dynamic URLs if you absolutely must, better SEO is achieved with static URLs.
Clean and Clear SEO is Better for Everyone
In the end, you want to have URLs that are descriptive of your site and its content. Not only is this easier for search engines to interpret, it is easier for visitors to remember. It is also easier to design a site that is laid out this way than it would be to remember codes, dates or other systems. You could get more complex, but there really is no need to do so.
Clean and simple is what Boyd advises and, since it reduces the amount of work you need to do, it makes your life easier.
What do you think about these concepts for creating good URLs? Have you had any experiences where URL design greatly impacted your SEO efforts? If so, we hope you will leave a comment and let us know. Feel free to ask any questions you have.