How-To : Write Effective URLs For Your Pages

> understanding the stake of URLs in both usability and SEO

Even today I often come upon unclean URLs in websites I browse – you know, the kind of ones that look like this :

amazon.fr/gp/product/2744065161/ref=s9_cartx_gw_d99_g14_ir05?pf_rd_m=A1X6FK5RDHNB96&pf_rd_s=center-3&pf_rd_r=1YTQ7PC7VJJPW08WQYN6&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=312232987&pf_rd_i=405320
(real example !!)

In order to take good habits right from the start, I offer you an overview of main points to consider when working on building quality URLs in your website projects.

  • Definition – the URL basic shape

The acronym “URL” stands for Uniform (or Universal) Resource Locator (created in 1994 by Tim Berners Lee), the address of a World Wide Web page. The format combines the pre-existing system of domain names (created in 1985) with file path syntax, where slashes are used to separate directory and file names (source Wikipedia).

URL-structure

1. Hypertext Transfer Protocol, the most popular application protocol used on the web.
2. Domain name of the website.
3. Sub-directory of the file.
4. File name of the requested resource.

  • When to care about URLs ?

URLs might be considered as soon as possible when building a website project. To refer my recent post about “Pre-production documents checklist for website conception“, URL writing can be made at step #4, defining information architecture.

You website is recent (a few months old), it’s still time to work on better URLs if needed. If your domain is older with strong links, use 301 redirection if you decide to overhaul your pages URLs.

  • The issue of separators

Using the right URLs structure is about making them easy to be read, for indexation bots but above all for users. So what is the best choice among the following examples ?

example.com/my-services
example.com/my_services
example.com/myservices

Tests made by SEOs* showed that hyphen (-) is better to use than underscore (_) for separating words inside URLs. In any case, avoid writing strings of several words, it can soon become a real pain to decrypt (words that are connected using underscores is treated by Google as one single word)… : example.com/wouldyoureallysuccedinreadingthiseasily?

* you can listen to SEO guru Matt Cutts on that topic : “Underscores vs. dashes in URLs“.

  • Watch for URL depth

Depth is the number of sub-folders we find in a domain. This is usually reflected in the breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs for a page on a e-commerce site might look like this :

Home > Books > Novels

You might have defined a solid information architecture to allow a clear navigation structure, and so coherent URLs : example.com/books/novels/book-name.html

And of course make sure to limit URL depth (3-4 levels max.) to keep them clean.

  • Avoid dynamic URLs

When using a Content Management System (ex. WordPress, Joomla…), URLs can sometimes be generated dynamically, making them look quite unclean : example.com/?p=987fg 

So make sure your CMS offers you URL re-writing options. Indeed static  URLs are much more user-friendly as they contain words instead of meaningless references.

Dynamic URLs can usually be identified by the presence of special characters, such as question marks and ampersands. These characters identify several parameters, often the language or user ID. But this means that the same content can have different URLs, which is definitely bad for both users and search engines !

  • What about SEO ?

Don’t think that clean URLs will improve your rankings in 2 weeks – this is never going to happen. But still, you might have noticed that words in URLs can be highlighted in bold when making a search :

URLs in SEO

Along with title and description tags, keywords contained in URLs can for sure help improve the relevancy of your pages in SERPs. But on the other hand, you must absolutely not fill your URLs with tons of keywords, as this will be considered as spam by Google !

  • The benefits of clean URLs

1. Usability > a clean URL allows users to understand what the page will be about in a single glance. When URLs are semantically correct they immediately makes sense for users, and become even more memorable, logical, and easy to type.
.

2. Links > well-written URLs have the possibility of serving as their own anchor text when copied and pasted as links.
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3. Sustainability > designing clean URLs is a way of “ensuring that individual web resources remain under the same URL for years, which makes the World Wide Web a more stable and useful system” (source Wikipedia).

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In conclusion, using good URL structure is an essential point for your website project, so you must not neglect it : this issue is all about information accuracy, as well as usability.

Remember that if it’s good for users, then it’s good for SEO too !

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