The URL of a web page is an important factor as far as search engine optimization is concerned. (Although, arguably, they are less important than they used to be.) Previously, a meaningful URL was considered a strong signal towards the “intent” of a page because, apart from anchor text, a URL was the only parameter that can be used to “judge” a page before visiting it.
Today, the URL is not as strong of a signal, but it DOES still matter – for both user experience and for search engines.
Looking at domain.com/store/sports/football.html, a user can conclude that the given website is an e-commerce store that sells soccer products. However, domain.com/web/pages/6389.html conveys nothing; the reader has to click-through and discover what the page is all about.
Below, I will share some best practices that webmasters should keep in mind when naming the URLs of their webpages.
As far as SEO is concerned, the KISS (keep it simple stupid) ideology has always worked wonders because this practice inspires you to focus on the main idea, rather than worrying about unnecessary details and technicalities that can complicate matters for no good reason.
A good URL is meaningful; a great URL is obvious. The words that directly associate with the meaning and purpose of the page are the best choice on most occasions. Consider an e-commerce 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.
Another advantage is that you don’t get unnecessary, irrelevant traffic that isn’t targeted. For example, if your page URL is domain.com/women/skirts.html, it is expected that you will get very few hits from male visitors. However, if the URL of the same page is domain.com/wearables/page001.html, you will get hits from both male and female visitors, and a portion of the traffic will bounce off. This can cause “visitor dissatisfaction” because you haven’t clearly defined the purpose of the page and your customers are “discovering” the intent of the page rather than “knowing it beforehand.”
Static URLs Are Preferred
Dynamically generated URLs are by no means weaker than their static counterparts. It’s not that search engines have some sort of “hatred” with URLs that have &, ?, other special characters, or session IDs embedded within them, but search engines may have a tough time interpreting a dynamically generated address. The worst case is when the address of a given page keeps changing at regular intervals. Your website may lose valuable Google juice because a redirect from an old address to a new address always results in loss of PageRank (by a very meager amount, but it does).
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.
Avoid Numbers, Dates, and Unnecessary Jargon
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. For example, domain.com/2006/04/16293/web-hosting.html will have relatively less URL value than domain.com/web-hosting.html. The logic is that when search engines evaluate both URLs, some of the URL value will be shared and wasted by the unnecessary numbers 2006, 04, 16293. Also read: 6 Ways to Increase Rankings of Blog Posts.
Use Hyphens to Separate Keywords
Always use a hyphen (-) to separate keywords in a URL. Avoid other separators, e.g., underscore (_) or a plus sign (+) or a weird combination of special characters. Search engines have their own algorithms to figure out separators, so using an underscore will not cause a loss in the SEO value of your page, but a hyphen is considered the best choice for separating words. I don’t know a single reason why anyone would want to use any other separator besides a hyphen.
Using Subdomains Is a Really Bad Idea
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.
A subdomain is considered a separate website, a completely separate entity from the root. Search engines do not reward you for hosting a page or a bulk of pages in a subdomain. Hence, changing the page domain.com/wearables/women/casual/tops.html to women.domain.com/casual-tops.html won’t guarantee an improvement in rankings.
“But the latter is more concise and reader friendly.”
True. But you must find out the reason why the latter one is more concise and not presume that subdomains are “better.” In the second example, all the folders have been removed, and the page has been moved to the root of the subdomain, which makes it more memorable. Although the second example looks more promising, search engines won’t consider it as a part of the main domain.
Result: a loss in Google juice or PageRank/ Anchor text value because the subdomain is now a separate entity that is as good as a fresh domain.
You can, of course, use 13 words in the URL of a page, but since KW in a URL are less important than they used to be, there is little use for this. My advice is to use as few words as possible. The lower the number of words, the higher the relevance of each word, and the higher the number of words, the lower the relative value given to each keyword.
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.
Final Thoughts on URL Structure
The best URL is the one that describes the intent of the page and is clear, short, and sticks in the visitor’s mind. Exact match URLs are a good bargain, but considering the non-availability of exact match domains, don’t stress too much about the name itself. Try to create a healthy balance between the structure, permalinks, and the naming convention of the different pages of your site, and you should be in pretty good shape.
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