URL Structure for Usability and SEO

4 minutes

Alt text

Maybe it’s my love for all things organization, but well-formed URLs are just plain satisfying. Unfortunately for me, I’m revisiting an old project and my half-baked URL structure is quite the Frankenstein monster. Rehabing it hasn’t been fun, but I’ve learned a bit about what I’d like to do going forward, when I start a new project.

Properly formed and descriptive URLs are important for three primary reasons:

  1. They will help users find and share the content they are looking for
  2. They will improve your SEO (and thus help users find your content more easily)
  3. They will help you sleep better at night. Seriously, a well thought out URL design will allow you to make changes and additions later on without fear of disaster or confusion

In planning out my new URL structure I’ve identified several points that should help anyone looking to acheive the three aims above.

Keep URLs short and sweet

Short URL’s force you to be as descriptive as possible, removing extraneous words. Short URLs will help users to better share your content and otherwise navigate your site. Think that adding a couple of extra words into your URL will help boost your SEO? The days of using keyword stuffing to improve search engine rankings are over. Matt Cutts advises that 4-5 words is a “natural” length and that any more words diminish the value of the additional words. I don’t think Google could make it any more clear when they state, ”a site’s URL structure should be as simple as possible.”

Words & Numbers

Words are always going to trump numbers, so don’t put them in your URLs when possible. Compare the following links for the same backpack from two different online merchants, REI and Backcountry.com:

Confusingly, the REI link tells the user that they will be viewing product "795624”, while the Backcountry link clearly shows the shopper what product they will be viewing. Although the REI link is a bit cleaner, don’t forget big G’s recommendation: “When possible [use], readable words rather than long ID numbers”. Enough said.

Reduce directory depth

Directory depth refers to the number of directories beneath the root URL that content exists. An example of a directory depth of 1 would be http://yourdomain.com/sub-directory/Rand Fishkin said it best: "A URL should contain no unnecessary folders (or words or characters for that matter), for the same reason that a man’s pants should contain no unnecessary pleats. The extra fabric is useless and will reduce his likelihood of impressing potential mates.“

Measure twice, cut once

Modifying your URL structure after the fact will result in pain, frustration, and frequent face-palming. Before embarking on nearly any project, you’ll need to sit down and give serious thought to URL design. Some even feel that URL design should be the, "first discussion of any startup directly after the idea is solidified.”

YOU MUST give serious thought to your URL structure–do your research, look at what competitors are doing, and make a concious decision about how your URLs will be structured. Don’t rely on a framework, or decide to just back into one option. If you do,you’ll regret it.

Some final fine tuning

  1. Use puncuation in your URLs–hyphens are better than underscores
  2. Don’t use upper-case letters. Rand Fishkin recommends that, “If you have a lot of type-in traffic, you might even consider a 301 rule that sends any incorrect capitalization permutation to its rightful home.”
  3. If you use many parameters in your URLs consider eliminating non-essential parameters and making them as descriptive as possible. Also be sure to modify your robots.txt file to prevent the GoogleBot from indexing all of the variations of URLs with parameters attached.

Remember, a wise man once said, “If you fail to plan [your URLs], you plan to fail.”  Don’t forget to give serious thought to URL structure the next time you start a new project–you won’t regret it.