When it comes to URL structure in search engine optimization (SEO), simple is always better. The easier it is for a search engine to find and decipher a URL, the more likely they are to index and rank a page for its most relevant search terms. Think about the very purpose of a URL. It stands for “Uniform Resource Locator.” By definition, search engines expect it to be uniform (or constructed thoughtfully) and to point clearly to a specified location. While URLs are limited by structural rules that apply with all web addresses, there are ways to make them more likely to give SEO a lift. Here are 15 easy tips to apply to URLs to boost search rankings.
1. Get to the point
Not only do long, wordy URLs make it difficult for people to share links on social media, but they are also more difficult for end users to decipher and don’t intuitively point back to the topic of the content. Even more importantly, search engines have algorithms to determine whether or not users are engaging with URLs and distribute rankings accordingly. URLs should be 45 characters or less, without abbreviations.
2. Don’t forget the keywords
The main purpose of a URL is for human readers and web crawlers to find relevant content on your website. Use keywords from that content in your URL as a breadcrumb for what to expect when the reader clicks on it. Keywords should be specific, informative and easy to read. Be sure that you don’t overstuff keywords, however. Web crawlers and humans alike hate messy, overstuffed URLs and will see right through it and right past your content. Use a keyword explorer if you’re not sure which words to include.
3. Ditch parameters
URL parameters are the “junk” that appears at the end of a URL, usually in the form of text strings and symbols. Parameters are most often used to track clicks, but the messy, unorganized URL they create may not be worth the click data. Use your best judgment and use parameters sparingly. There are tools available to help you create URLs without the use of parameters.
4. Match to titles
Make sure your URL has something to do with your article or content. Not only does it make the content more searchable and easily found by users and search engines, but it also adds cohesiveness to your site. Users don’t like surprises when they click on an article from a URL. They expect to be taken to the content indicated in the title and URL.
5. Watch out for characters
There are plenty of punctuation characters that are safe to use and that render correctly in URLs, and just as many that won’t. Review a list of safe characters to pinpoint the ones with the highest readability before you create your URLs to keep them from getting lost in translation. We’ve all cut and pasted that URL with garbled, unreadable character strings that have nothing to do with the subject matter. Don’t create garbage URLs.
6. Avoid “stop” words
Read your URL out loud after you write it. Does it make sense without “stop” words like “and, the, but, etc.?” If so, leave them out. They just clutter up your URL and make it more difficult to find in search results. They are usually meaningless words in SEO. In the rare event that your “stop” word adds context to your topic– use it. In most cases, save your word bank for the ones that really matter to search results.
7. Limit redirects
Search engines do not like redirect jumps. This is especially important on mobile devices that tend to have longer page-load times than desktops. As a general rule, limit redirects to a maximum of two. It keeps load times down and will prevent you from getting dinged by web crawlers for incomplete ranking signals.
8. Slash the slashes
Folders, which are indicated by slashes, don’t necessarily hinder site performance, but they do give the impression of unwieldy site navigation. They also make it more difficult to edit URLs when needed. While they serve a purpose, try to keep them at a minimum and make sure the folders you do use contribute to the user experience instead of detracting from it.
9. Don’t use spaces
While you can technically separate words in your URL with spaces, they will render incorrectly, making your URL look sloppy. Instead, use hyphens to separate words. It creates a neater, more readable URL. In some cases, underscores are an acceptable substitute but may render incorrectly. Make sure you test your URL before you push it to your live page.
10. Avoid repetition
Search engines will not reward you for repetition in your URLs. It looks spammy, and readers will just be confused. Use keywords, but use them wisely.
If you find that you have two or more URLs with very similar content, use a 301 redirect to canonicalize them. This tells search engines which version of the content you want visitors to find first. While you likely won’t be penalized for duplicate content, you’ll be doing your readers (and the web crawlers) a service by pointing them to relevant content via the most direct path. As a bonus, you’ll boost rankings and avoid split ranking signals.
12. Build a smart hierarchy
Don’t be shortsighted when it comes to the underpinnings of your website. Instead of cobbling domains and subdomains together without any logical construction, make sure you map out your website structure in advance, taking into considerations any potential future growth plans.
13. Use a single domain and sub-domain
Instead of using multiple sub-domains, consider the use of sub-folders instead. Web crawlers often have trouble associating content from a parent domain to a sub-domain. Make it easy for the search engines to associate content to your root domain by simplifying the structure.
14. Create topical authority
As you build URLs, think of your website as a series of buckets. Main content is your primary bucket. It pours into everything else. Supplementary content is smaller buckets that feed from your main content pages. URLs help you organize the buckets in the best way for your audience to read the most content. Put yourself in the shoes of the user when you build topic structure. What is the most high-level version of the subject matter? What is the next level? It may help to actually go through an exercise where you choose a topic and complete a search from the top down. What buckets did you search in? Was the content easy to find? Build your topical architecture with the end-user in mind.
15. Don’t forget the XML Sitemap
An XML sitemap is simply a list of all of the URLs available submitted to search engines. Think of it as a map of your aggregate content. An XML sitemap helps web crawlers find your pages more easily and also provides a reference for canonical URLs. The crawlers choose a canonical URL by identifying if the URL is mentioned in the XML sitemap. For the best SEO results, only mention those pages you’d like the search engines to ferret out when you build your XML sitemap
If these 15 tips have proven anything, it is that URLs have a big impact on SEO. While there are many URL best practices that can tip the SEO scales in your favor, the items on this list are simple to employ immediately and offer measurable results.
The first rule of URLs is to keep the end user in mind. Web crawlers are designed to create the best possible experience for web visitors, so naturally, a great user experience will pave the way for improved search rankings and a lift in SEO. As you experiment with URL creation, make sure you measure results and document effective tactics so you can repeat them for years to come.