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What's in an SEO-friendly URL?

Posted by fusionbox on Aug. 7, 2011, 6 p.m.

Content Management Systems (CMS) remain one of the most popular mediums for website building. It is important that the CMS that you choose allows you to make the kinds of changes that are necessary for Search Engine Optimization (SEO). One of the things that make some CMS platforms difficult to optimize is the way that URLs are structured. SEO friendly URLs can be managed properly by a CMS to a certain degree, however URL best practices are one of the elements of SEO that is difficult for automated systems to get right every time.

SEO-friendly URLs can:

  • Describe your content
  • Help you avoid duplicate content
  • Avoid having your pages trigger spam filters
  • Make your pages easier to share, remember, and type into a browser
  • Help your Web visitors navigate your site
  • Increase search engine ranking for sought after keywords

The way that a search engine robot reads your URL can be different then how a human reads it. While you are structuring your website it is very important to create a URL structure that will please your mechanical visitors as well as your human ones. URLs that are too long, have underscores, capital letters, arbitrary numbers or even just look a little weird can cause problems in a couple of different ways.

Bad URLs can:

  • Hinder usability
  • Create duplicate content
  • Expose file extensions and other security vulnerabilities

URL Capitalization
Capitalization directly effects the way that search engines index your site. While domains are not case sensitive by themselves, URLs are. So when a search engine sees www.yoursite.com/Section-One/ and www.yoursite.com/section-one/ it indexes them as two different web pages. Two different versions of the same page with the same content will be caught in Google's duplicate content filter. This can degrade your website's SEO value.

Similarly if your URL has capital letters, and a user links to or shares the lowercase version, it could end up in a 404 error, indicating that the page was not found.

URL Length & Arbitrary Characters, Query Parameters 
When optimizing a web page for a certain keyword you want to make sure that there isn't a lot of filler to confuse a search robot. As a human it might be safe to assume that www.yoursite.com/08/09/2010/url-best-practices/ means that yoursite.com published an article about URL best practices on August, 9 2011. Search engines will see this and take into account the numbers as well as the words. The importance of the words can be diluted by the presence of the numbers preceding it, and if the date is old the content could be devalued.

Query parameters (URLs that end with something that looks like this- ?id=61&page=2&sort=&cat=Pest+Control or ?inventoryType=Trailer&category=Grain) increase the overall length of the URL and can lead to duplicate content issues. This is a common problem on e-commerce websites when sorting different products and categories.

Shorter URLs are also nicer to look at, easier to understand, easier to memorize, copy and paste, read to someone over the phone, type into a mobile device, etc.

Dashes vs Underscores
Placing keywords into your URLs helps both humans and robots to know what your page is about. Google also pays attention to punctuation marks to ensure that the results they deliver are in the same context as what the user has typed into the search box. Using underscore indicates to search engines that you are looking for something different then using a dash.

For example the term “url_best_practices” might be seen as one long word, or literally as 
“url_best_practices”. The term “url-best-practices” is seen as being made up of the three separate words: “url” “best” and “practices” that can form a single phrase.

File Extensions in URLs
Having file extensions, like .html, .php, .asp and so on, at the end of your URLs does not appear to have a direct effect on your web page's search engine ranking. That said, there are reasons to remove file extensions from your URLs. One reason is security. The more information that a malicious user has about how your website is built, the better chance they have of figuring out how to hack it.

Another reason to remove file extensions is scalability. Think for a second if your website was built in Microsoft ASP and you decide to redesign it in another programming language, like PHP. If URLs are extensionless then search engines will not have to change all of your pages in their index to the new file version.

File Structure
The architecture of your site is very important for a lot of reasons. The way your files are structured makes a difference in how your website is crawled by search engines, as well as surfed by a user. A good rule of thumb to follow is to try to have your most important content within two clicks of the home page. Pages that are placed closer to your home page will gain more rank overall.

Proper folder structure should be used, so any pages nested under /products/ should include the folder in their URL, e.g. www.yoursite.com/a-great-product/ should be at www.yoursite.com/products/a-great-product/. This aids usability in that users always know where they are located in your site.

URL best practices are one of the first things someone will discover when they begin to explore SEO. It is a very simple idea although some webmasters and CMS systems still get it terribly wrong from time to time. The good news is that once your URL issues have been corrected it is possible to create 301 redirects from the old URL versions to the new ones.

This assures that any links and indexed search results pointing to the old URLs will resolve permanently to the new, optimized versions.

Need help with creating SEO-friendly URLs for your site? Contact the Denver Search Engine Optimization experts at Fusionbox.

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