First impressions count.
And when it comes to your website, your URLs are often the first thing Google and customers will see.
URLs are also the building blocks of an effective site hierarchy, passing equity through your domain and directing users to their desired destinations.
They can be tricky to correct if you don’t plan ahead, as you can end up with endless redirect loops. Neither Google nor your site visitors will appreciate those.
So they are worth getting right. But getting URL structure right involves a complex blend of usability and accessibility factors, along with some good old-fashioned SEO.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are some rules we can all follow to get the most out of our URLs and set our sites up for future SEO success.
1. Use Your Keywords
Every time you launch a page on your domain, it should have a purpose. Whether transactional, informational, or administrative, its reason for existence should be clear at the outset.
You’ll want this page to be discovered by the right people (and crawlers), so you will incorporate some keyword research and include the relevant terms. The most descriptive of these — the term that gets to the nub of what this page is about — should be included in the URL, close to the root domain.
We’ll deal with multiple pages that broadly tackle the same topic later, but for now, let’s assume the simple example of a page that clearly handles one topic. Let’s go for whiskey.
Even this isn’t quite as simple as it seems, though.
Should we use “whiskey” or “whisky” as our standard spelling? Both are valid, with the former being an Irish spelling and the latter Scottish. The Irish spelling has been adopted in the U.S., but we’ll need more proof before proceeding with that as our chosen variation.
The Moz Keyword Explorer is great for this sort of predicament, as it groups keywords together to give an estimate of the search volume for particular topics. In this era of vague keyword-level search volumes, it provides a nice solution.
The search volume is with “whiskey” and our site is based in the U.S., so let’s run with that.
2. Build a Sound Structure for the Future
Perhaps the biggest challenge we all face when defining a sitewide URL hierarchy is ensuring that it will still fit our purpose for years to come.
It is for this reason that some websites end up as a patchwork quilt of sub-domains and conflicting paths to arrive at similar products. This is poor from a user’s perspective, but it also sends confusing signals to Google about how you categorize your product offering.
An example of this would be:
The first URL flows logically from domain to category to sub-category to product. The second URL goes from domain to product. Hierarchically, both products should sit at the same level in the site and the Jameson example is better for SEO and users.
We encounter this a lot, though. Why?
It can be a simple lack of communication, with a product team launching a new item straight onto the site without consulting other parties. It can also be down to a failure of future planning.
Either way, it’s essential to lay out your structure in advance. Work together with different teams to understand the future direction of the business, then add your SEO knowledge to shape the site architecture. It will rarely be perfect, but the more you plan, the fewer errors you will have to undo down the line.
3. Avoid Superfluous Words & Characters
As a rule of thumb, make sure a user can understand what your page is about by looking at the URL. That means you don’t need to include every single preposition or conjunction.
Words like “and” or “the” are just distractions and can be stripped out of the URL altogether. Just as users can understand what a topic is about without these short words, Google will derive all the meaning it requires too.
You should also avoid keyword repetition within URLs. Adding the same keyword multiple times in the hope of increasing your ranking chances will only lead to a spammy URL structure.
An example of this unnecessary repetition would be:
The first two uses of the main keyword make sense, but the third and fourth are overkill.
A few additional points to bear in mind on this topic:
- Case Sensitivity: It is surprisingly common to find multiple versions of the same URL, with one all in lower case and the others using occasional capital letters. Use canonical tags to mark the lower-case URL as the preferred version or, if possible, use permanent redirects.
- Hashes: These can be useful to send users to a specific section of a page, but restrict their use in other circumstances if possible. If the content users are sent to after the # symbol is unique, make it available via a simple URL instead.
- Word Delimiters: Stick with hyphens to separate words within your URL strings. Underscores will serve to join two words together, so be wary of using these.
- URL Length: After 512 pixels, Google will truncate your URL in search results pages. A good rule of thumb is to keep y0ur URLs as short as you can, without losing their general meaning.
4. Minimize Dynamic URL Strings
This one can be harder than it sounds, depending on the content management system you use. Some e-commerce platforms will automatically spit out character strings that leave you with URLs like:
These are a bit unsightly and they also go against the rules we’ve been outlining above. We want static URLs that include a logical folder structure and descriptive keywords.
Although search engines have no problem crawling or indexing either variant, for SEO-based reasons it’s better to use static URLs rather than dynamic ones. The thing is, static URLs contain your keywords and are more user-friendly since one can figure out what the page is about just by looking at the static URL’s name.
So how do we get around this? You can use rewrite rules if your web server runs Apache, and some tools like this one from Generate It are helpful. There are different fixes for different platforms (some more complex than others).
Some web developers make use of relative URLs, too. The problem with relative URLs for SEO is that they are dependent on the context in which they occur. Once the context changes, the URL may not work. For SEO, it’s better to use absolute URLs instead of relative ones, since the former are what search engines prefer.
Now, sometimes different parameters can be added to the URL for analytics tracking or other reasons (such as sid, utm, etc.) To make sure that these parameters don’t make the number of URLs with duplicate content grow over the top, you can do either of the following:
- Ask Google to disregard certain URL parameters in Google Search Console in Configuration > URL Parameters.
- See if your content management system allows you to solidify URLs with additional parameters with their shorter counterparts.
5. Consolidate the Different Versions of Your Site
As a rule, there are two major versions of your domain indexed in search engines: the www and the non-www version of it. We can add to this the complexity of having a secure (https) and non-secure (HTTP) version too, with Google giving preference to the former.
Most SEOs use the 301 redirect to point one version of their site to the other (or vice versa). This tells search engines that a particular URL has moved permanently to another destination.
Alternatively (for instance, when you can’t do a redirect), you can specify your preferred version in Google Search Console in Configuration > Settings > Preferred Domain. However, this has certain drawbacks:
- This takes care of Google only.
- This option is restricted to root domains only. If you have an example.wordpress.com site, this method is not for you.
But why worry about the www vs non-www issue in the first place? The thing is, some of your backlinks may be pointing to your www version, while some could be going to the non-www version.
To ensure all versions’ SEO value is consolidated, it’s better to explicitly establish this link between them. You can do this via the 301 redirect, in Google Search Console, or by using a canonical tag, the latter of which we will look at in more detail below.
6. Make Correct Use of Canonical Tags
So, canonical tags. These are a very helpful piece of code when you have multiple versions of what is essentially the same page. By adding a canonical tag, you can tell Google which one is your preferred version.
Note: The canonical tag should be applied only with the purpose of helping search engines decide on your canonical URL. For redirection of site pages, use redirects. And, for paginated content, it makes sense to employ rel=”next” and rel=”prev” tags in most cases.
Canonical tags are useful for just about any website, but they are particularly powerful for online retailers.
For example, on Macy’s website, I can go to the Quilts & Bedspreads page directly by using the URL (https://www.macys.com/shop/bed-bath/quilts-bedspreads), or I can take different routes from the homepage:
- I can go to Homepage >> Bed& Bath >> Quilts & Bedspreads. The following URL with my path recorded is generated:
- Or I can go to Homepage >> For the Home >> Bed & Bath >> Bedding >> Quilts & Bedspreads. The following URL is generated:
Now, all three URLs lead to the same content. And if you look into the code of each page, you’ll see the following tag in the head element:
As you see, for each of these URLs, a canonical URL is specified, which is the cleanest version of all the URLs in the group:
What this does is, it funnels down the SEO value each of these three URLs might have to one single URL that should be displayed in the search results (the canonical URL). Normally search engines do a pretty good job identifying canonical URLs themselves, but, as Susan Moskwa once wrote at Google Webmaster Central:
“If we aren’t able to detect all the duplicates of a particular page, we won’t be able to consolidate all of their properties. This may dilute the strength of that content’s ranking signals by splitting them across multiple URLs.”
7. Incorporate Topical Authority
In Google’s own Search Quality Evaluators Guidelines (a must-read document for all SEOs!), there are clear references to both main content and supplementary content.
Main content will be your lead page in each section that really sets out what your category is all about. It will set out your stall as a relevant source for a topic. Supplementary content provides, as the name suggests, additional information that helps users navigate the topic and reach informed decisions.
URL structure is an essential component of getting this right.
So, let’s go back to our whiskey example to see how we might tackle this. Our site is e-commerce focused and we want to sell the product, of course. However, going for the jugular and only pushing out product pages is tantamount to SEO tunnel vision.
Our initial research from Moz Keyword Explorer is a great resource as we make these plans. Below, I have exported the keyword list and reduced it to the highest-volume topics. From here, we can start to decide what might qualify as a topic for a main content or supplementary content page.
This is a simplified example and just a first step, of course.
However, it is worth noting that this approach goes further than just category > sub-category > product. By thinking in terms of main content and supplementary content, a product is just as likely to qualify as main content as a category is. The question is more about which topics consumers want us to elaborate on to help them make choices.
From here, we can dig into some of these topics and start to flesh out what each hub might look like.
Some clear opportunities already stand out to create content and rank via rich snippets. People want to know how whiskey is made, what different varieties exist, and of course, whether it’s spelled ‘whiskey’ or ‘whisky’. This could be the beginning of a business case to create a whiskey tasting guide or a ‘history of whiskey’ content hub on the site.
Combined with ranking difficulty metrics, business priorities, and content production capabilities, this approach will soon take shape as a site hierarchy and opportunity analysis.
For our whiskey example, it might start to comprise the following structure:
Again, there are decisions to make.
In the last URL, one could argue that the tasting guide page for barley whiskey should sit under the barley whiskey sub-category page in the site hierarchy. Barley whiskey has been earmarked as ‘main content’ in my spreadsheet, after all. The choice here comes down to where we want to consolidate value; dispersing that value would reduce our chances of ranking for any ‘tasting guide’ terms.
These are exactly the kinds of decisions that can lead to a confused structure if a consistent logic is not followed.
All of this will contribute to your topical authority and increase site visibility.
This type of content often already exists on site, too. I am not claiming anything revolutionary by saying a website should have lots of useful information, after all. However, the structure of this content and how entities are semantically linked to each other makes the difference between success and failure.
This can be used as a ‘quick win’ tactic and it tends to be received well by all parties. Updating and moving existing content will always be an easier sell than asking for an all-new content hub.
8. Create an XML Sitemap
Once you’ve ticked off all of the above, you’ll want to make sure search engines know what’s going on with your website. That’s where sitemaps come in handy — particularly XML sitemaps.
An XML Sitemap is not to be confused with the HTML sitemap. The former is for the search engines, while the latter is mostly designed for human users (although it has other uses t00).
So what is an XML Sitemap? In plain words, it’s a list of your site’s URLs that you submit to the search engines. This serves two purposes:
- This helps search engines find your site’s pages more easily.
- Search engines can use the sitemap as a reference when choosing canonical URLs on your site.
Picking a preferred (canonical) URL becomes necessary when search engines see duplicate pages on your site, as we saw above.
So, as they don’t want any duplicates in the search results, search engines use a special algorithm to identify duplicate pages and pick just one URL to represent the group in the search results. Other web pages just get filtered out.
Now, back to sitemaps. One of the criteria search engines may use to pick a canonical URL for the group of web pages is whether this URL is mentioned in the website’s sitemap.
So, what web pages should be included in your sitemap? For purely SEO reasons, it’s recommended to include only the web pages you’d like to show up in search. You should include a more comprehensive account of your site’s URLs within the HTML sitemap.
An SEO-friendly URL structure is the following things:
- Easy to read: Users and search engines should be able to understand what is on each page just by looking at the URL.
- Keyword-rich: Keywords still matter and your target queries should be within URLs. Just be wary of overkill; extending URLs just to include more keywords is a bad idea.
- Consistent: There are multiple ways to create an SEO-friendly URL structure on any site. It’s essential that, whatever logic you choose to follow, it is applied consistently across the site.
- Static: Dynamic parameters are rarely an SEO’s best friend, but they are quite common. Where possible, find a solution that allows your site to render static URLs instead.
- Future-proof: Think ahead when planning your site structure. You should minimize the number of redirects on your domain, and it’s easier to do this if you don’t require wholesale changes to URLs.
- Comprehensive: Use the concepts of main content and supplementary content to ensure you have adequate coverage for all relevant topics. This will maximize your site’s visibility.
- Supported by data: It normally requires buy-in from a lot of stakeholders to launch or update a particular site structure. Numbers talk, so make use of search and analytics data to support your case.
- Submitted to search engines: Finally, create an XML sitemap containing all of the URLs that you want to rank via SEO and submit it to search engines. That will ensure all your hard work gets the reward it deserves.
How to Boost Your Search Visibility with SEO-Friendly WordPress URLs offers additional guidance on optimizing URL structure for WordPress websites and blogs.
Featured Image: Pixabay
In-article image 1: Unsplash
In-article image 2: Pixabay
Screenshots taken by Clark Boyd, June 2017