SEO Best Practices: Search Engine Friendly URLs

Convention wisdom suggests that you can attract more bees with honey. When it comes to organic search engine optimization, nothing attracts search engine spiders like crawler-friendly URLs.

What qualities do most search engine-friendly URLs possess? Generally speaking, most search engine-friendly URLs:

Describe the content on the page.
An obvious URL is a great URL. If a user can look at the address bar or a pasted link in a Tweet or blog post, and make an accurate guess about the not only the source of the content bat also the context of the content of the page before ever clicking on the link, then the URL is probably search engine friendly. These URLs get cut and pasted, shared, emailed, written down, spoken in hushed tones, and indexed by the search engines.  Successful search engine optimization initiatives almost always start by presenting users with descriptive URLs.

Are short and sweet:
The shorter the URL, the easier to copy and paste into a document, read over the phone, write on a business card, or use in a hundred other online marketing initiatives, all of which contribute to better usability,  higher search engine visibility and consistent branding. Keep URLs short and to the point and you are likely to enjoy a long and happy life on the interwebs.

Appear to be static:
Some of the major search engines treat static URLs differently than dynamic URLs. Humans and bots tend to mistrust URLs when their primary components are “?,” “&,” and “=”. Dynamic URLs can often be the ultimate barrier to successful positioning in the major search engines. Do yourself a favor and make dynamic URLs appear to be static and unchanging by implementing URL rewrites, canonical tag attributes, stemming guides and the like.

Include keywords:
If you know that you’re going to be targeting a lot of competitive keyword phrases on your website for search traffic, you’ll want to leverage every SEO signal you cant. Keywords  in URLs are certainly one element of that strategy. Even dynamically created pages through a rigorous CMS can create the option of including keywords in the URL. Use your keywords wisely in your navigational ontology and you will help improve your website’s overall visibility in the search engines.

Don’t reply on many different subdomains:
It’s a good idea to not use multiple subdomains (e.g., category.www.mysite.com). Doing so adds unnecessary complex layers to what will likely be lengthy URLs. Back in the stone age of SEO (circa 1998) subdomains used to be treated like different sites so the use of multiple subdomains exploded. The result was an explosion in duplicate content and attempts to game the search engines.  Use sudomains sparingly — like when a subdomain has the potential to be treated as a completely separate site from the top level domain. But avoid setting up sub-sub-sub-sudomains at all costs.

Are built from as few folders as possible:
A truly search engine-friendly URL should contain no unnecessary folders or paths (or words or characters for that matter). The equation is simple — the more folders in the URL, the further away from the root domain and the further away from the root domain, the less important the page. Always strive to eliminate superfluous folders and/or paths in URLs and you will eventually find success in the search engines.  Remember, relevant directory names are helpful for both search engines and human users since they provide an idea about the content of the content at the URL.

Use hyphens to separate words:
When creating URLs with multiple words in the format of a phrase, hyphens are (still) best to separate the terms (e.g. /very-friendly/keyword-rich/); followed (in order) by, underscores ( _ ), plus signs (+) and nothing ( spaces ). Users and bots still prefer hyphens, even though most most search engine spiders can now slug their way through exceedingly complex URL constructs.

Are consistent with naming conventions:
If your site uses a single format throughout its architecture, don’t consider making one section unique. Stick to your URL guidelines once established, so users (and developers) will have a clear idea of how content is organized into folders and pages. This can apply globally as well for sites that share platforms, brands, etc.

Are not case sensitive:
Since URLs can accept both uppercase and lowercase characters, don’t ever allow any uppercase letters in your site structure. If you have upper case URL constructs in play now, 301 (permanently redirect them) to all-lowercase versions and/or implement canonical link elements to help avoid search engine spider confusion and potential content duplication. 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.

Are not appended with extraneous data:
There’s no point to having a URL exist in which removing characters generates the same content. Site visitors are potential lazy linkers. They are not going to bother to link to you version of an optimal URL. If you use appended URLs and can’t figure out why your link building initiatives don’t produce positive results, go back to the drawing board and stop appending  URLs with extraneous parameters now.

Describe the Content:
An obvious URL is a great URL. If a user can look at the address bar or a pasted link in a Tweet or blog post, and make an accurate guess about the content of the page before ever reaching it, then the URL is likely optimal. These URLs get pasted, shared, emailed, written down, and indexed by the search engines. Online marketing success starts with presenting users with descriptive URLs.

Keep URLs Short:
The shorter the URL, the easier to copy and paste into a document, read over the phone, write on a business card, or use in a hundred other online marketing initiatives, all of which contribute to better usability and consistent branding by keeping URLs short and to the point.

Static URLs are Best:
Some of the major search engines treat static URLs differently than dynamic URLs. Humans and bots dislike a URL when the primary components are “?,” “&,” and “=”. Dynamic URLs can often be the ultimate barrier to successful positioning in the major search engines.

Keywords Never Hurt:
If you know that you’re going to be targeting a lot of competitive keyword phrases on your website for search traffic, you’ll want every advantage you can get. Keywords are certainly one element of that strategy. Even dynamically created pages through a rigorous CMS can create the option of including keywords in the URL.

Subdomains Aren’t the Answer:
Never use multiple subdomains (e.g., category.www.cabelas.com); doing so adds unnecessary complex layers to what will likely be lengthy URLs. Secondly, consider that subdomains have the potential to be treated separately from the primary domain when it comes to passing link and trust value.

In most cases where just a few subdomains are used and there’s good interlinking – subdomain-based site architecture won’t hurt. For example, forums.cabelas.com is completely in line with best practices. Just remember that the limited benefits derived from flooding the SERPs with different subdomains are minimal when compared to the potential loss of link juice and domain trust.

Fewer Folders Are Better:
A URL should contain no unnecessary folders or paths (or words or characters for that matter). The equation is simple — the more folders in the URL, the further away from the root domain and the further away from the root domain, the less important the page. Always strive to eliminate superfluous folders and/or paths in URLs.

Relevant directory names are helpful for both search engines and human users since they provide an idea about the content of the URL. It’s a best practice to use keywords in the URL structure in the form of directory names and subdirectories to optimize your website.

Hyphens Separate Best:
When creating URLs with multiple words in the format of a phrase, hyphens are best to separate the terms (e.g. /sure-safe/field-dressing-glove/); followed (in order) by, underscores ( _ ), plus signs (+) and nothing ( spaces ).

Be Consistent with Naming Conventions:
If your site uses a single format throughout its architecture, don’t consider making one section unique. Stick to your URL guidelines once established, so users (and developers) will have a clear idea of how content is organized into folders and pages. This can apply globally as well for sites that share platforms, brands, etc.

Don’t be Case Sensitive:
Since URLs can accept both uppercase and lowercase characters, don’t ever allow any uppercase letters in your site structure. If you have upper case URL constructs in play now, 301 (permanently redirect them) to all-lowercase versions to help avoid confusion and content duplication. 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.

Don’t Append Extraneous Data:
There’s no point to having a URL exist in which removing characters generates the same content. You can be virtually assured that people on the web will figure it out, link to the content in different fashions, confuse themselves, their readers and the search engines (with duplicate content issues), and then wonder why their link building initiatives aren’t working.

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