Best Practices in URL Structure

06 October 2010

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Complex and illogical URL structures are two of the most common mistakes in web design and can seriously effect SEO. It is vital that the URLs are kept as simple as possible and organised in a way that humans can understand.

Here is our simple guide to some of the most common problems associated with poor URL structure and advice on how to fix them.

Descriptive URLs

Many content management systems produce dynamic URLs as default. These are generally long strings of text that are unreadable by humans. Instead, it is important to have descriptive, readable URL’s, that describe the content of the individual page being listed.

So for example if a user is searching for information about microwaves, a URL like this one:
http://www.example.com/microwaves

will make it much easier for users to decide to click, than one like this:
http://www.example.com/index.php?id_sezione=360&sid=6a5eb7779

Punctuated URLs

It is also important to use punctuation in URLs to avoid long strings of characters that are difficult for humans to read.

So something like:
http://www.example.com/new-microwave-ovens

is far superior to simply listing:
http://www.example.com/newmicrowaveovens

It is also important to note that hyphens (dashes) are preferred to underscores as Google sees words separated by hyphens as individual words – very useful for capturing multiple search terms.

Flat directory structure

The other very important thing when considering URL structure is to keep everything as flat as possible and do not bury content away in unnecessary directories. Search engines do not crawl pages that are more than 2/3 levels deep as frequently as higher level pages. This means that content may not be indexed and may not show up in their results pages.

So instead of:
http://www.example.com/sales/products/new/silver/electric/microwave-ovens

keep it simple and use something like:
http://www.example.com/products/microwave-ovens

Not only is this better for search engines, but it makes it much easier for users to understand your site architecture and decide whether they want to click on your link.

Relevant URL structure

It should go without saying that there is no point putting unnecessary or irrelevant text content into your URL’s. This only serves to confuse search engines and seriously annoy your users.

For example, somebody is searching for microwaves comes across this URL:
http://www.example.com/products/brilliant-microwave-ovens

If after clicking on the link expecting to see some microwave-ovens they are taken to a page selling winter coats, they are inevitably going to leave straight away. This is a bad user experience and could easily lose you potential customers. Remember SEO is not just about generating traffic, it’s also about converting those visitors into sales or enquiries so always keep them at the fore-front of your mind.

Avoid keyword stuffing

Whilst having keyword rich URL’s is an important part of SEO, it is also important to avoid keyword stuffing your URLs.

So don’t write:
http://www.example.com/microwave-microwaves-new-microwave-cheap-micowave

when simply writing:
http://www.example.com/microwave-ovens will do

This is likely to get you penalised by the search engines and again, it will really confuse users who will find this kind of link difficult to read and hard to trust.

Check your spelling

It is a very basic point, but you need to ensure that your URL’s have the correct spelling. If a consumer comes across a link to your website that looks like this:

http://www.example.com/fridg-frezers

They are likely to doubt the professionalism of your organisation. It is also throwing the search engines a major curve ball, so take the time to check all your URL’s properly.

Keep it short

It is generally accepted that if there are more than 5 words in your URL, search engines like Google give less weight to those words and not give you as much credit.

So don’t have:
http://www.example.com/blue-microwaves-the-finest-microwaves-that-have-ever-been-in-existence

Just stick to:
http://www.example.com/blue-microwaves

Also, short URLs within Google results pages get clicked on twice as often as longer ones – so you get double the benefits by making sure you stick to this rule.

Stick to lower case

Unlike domain names, URLs ARE CASE SENSITIVE! Therefore any randomly added uppercase character can cause havoc for users. Especially when users are trying to manually enter a url into a browser address bar.

So NEVER do this:
http://www.example.com/Blue-Microwaves

Avoid sub-domains

Sub-domains are a slightly grey area when it comes to SEO best practice. They can confuse users and sow a seed of doubt as to whether the site is trustworthy. Also, sub-domains have the potential to be treated as separate domains from a search engines point of view, which means that valuable link juice and page rank can be lost – this is a very important consideration. The general advice is to try and avoid using sub-domains wherever possible, as this prevents any chance of these kind of instances occurring.

Example of a sub-domain:
http://microwaves.example.com

Any more?

We think that covers most of the major issues facing URL structure for SEO, but if you have any other ideas, get in touch and we’ll add it to the list.

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