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How to Create an SEO-Friendly URL Structure

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This post is part of a series called SEO Fundamentals for Web Designers.
Managing your Site's Accessibility for Search Engines
Meta Tags and SEO

One of the most basic search engine optimization techniques is in using SEO-friendly URL structures. A good structure can help the indexation process of your website, but, unfortunately, there are plenty of websites that use incorrect, suboptimal URLs. In this article we take a look at the various elements of a URL and how we can create a structure that will help us rank as highly as possible.


Elements of a URL

We'll start by looking at the elements that make up a URL. A URL might look very simple at first sight, but it actually comprises several important pieces of information.

Let’s take a look at this example:

basic url structure
  1. Hypertext Transfer Protocol: the most popular application protocol used on the world wide web. Other familiar types of application protocols include FTP and telnet.
  2. Domain name of the website.
  3. Subdirectory of the file.
  4. File name of the requested resource

There are three elements of a URL that we can customize: the domain name, the subdirectories and the file names. In the following chapters we’ll discuss each of these elements individually and see how they can be optimized.

Domain Name

The domain name is your address on the world wide web. It’s probably the part of a URL that is most visible; often being communicated in emails, on flyers, business cards, etc.

A good domain name is easy to remember. Make it as short as possible, preferably one or two words. This will not necessarily help you rank higher, but it’s useful for your visitors because it’s easier to remember.

You might consider using keywords in a domain name. In days gone by keyword-rich domains were easy to rank because the ranking algorithms were less advanced. Unfortunately (though undertandably), those days are over.

Matt Cutts, head of webspam at Google, gave us a heads up about an upcoming algorithm update in 2011:

We have looked at the rankings and weights that we give to keyword domains and some people have complained that we’re giving a little too much weight for keywords in domains. And so we have been thinking about adjusting that mix a little bit and sort of turning the knob down within the algorithm so that given two different domains, it wouldn’t necessarily help you as much to have a domain with a bunch of keywords in it.

On September 28, 2012 this update went live. It reduced the number of low quality keyword-rich domains in the search results. These types of domains are often referred to as ‘exact match domains’ (EMDs), because the domain name matches a specific search query.

So be careful when you choose an exact match domain, but don’t let that scare you away from using keywords in your domain name. As long as you don’t overdo it, you should be fine; keyword stuffing should always be avoided.

Domain Extensions

A .com domain is still the most popular domain extension. When we take a look at the diversity in domain extensions on the search results page, we see that 87% have a .com extension, 6% a .org and 3% a .net. Other extensions such as .info, .us, .ca... are less popular. (Data from this presentation by Rand Fishkin).

domain extensions in search results

Does a domain extension matter for SEO? Short answer: no. A domain extension doesn’t determine whether or not we're dealing with a high quality site. There are other factors that determine the quality, such as content and links.

On the other hand, a country-specific domain extension (such as .us, .de, .it...) can have some benefits. If you have a local business, let’s say in Germany, it’s a good idea to buy a .de domain. Country specific domains don’t rank as well in other countries, but it can get you a decent amount of local traffic.


Subdirectories

When we talk about subdirectories or subfolders, we can take a look at the depth and width of these folders.

Depth

Depth is the number of subfolders 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:

breadcrumbs

This page with tshirts for men is 2 levels deep. In this case, the correct url structure for a product in this directory will look something like this:

breadcrumbs

Using keywords for your subfolder names (e.g. ‘tshirts’) is much better than using generic names or numbers (e.g. ‘cat433’). It doesn't only serve as a navigational tool for users, but it can also help search engines correctly index your website.

Bonus! these paths will also show up in your Analytics, making interpretation of data much easier.

Can a subfolder structure be too deep? The flatter your site structure is, the better. Deep pages will often be crawled less frequently. I like to keep my pages less than three folders deep.

Width

Width refers to the number of pages in a category. The website from previous example might offer tshirts for women and children next to men’s tshirts. In this case, the width of the tshirt category is three pages (men, women and children).

The width of a directory doesn’t influence rankings; you can have as many pages as you want. As long as the pages are unique, this doesn’t pose a problem (we’ll learn how to deal with duplicate content later).

Subfolders or Subdomains?

Is it best to use subdomains or subfolders? Just as a reminder, here’s the difference between a subdomain and a subfolder:

subfolders

Subdomains are often seen by Google as separate domains, which means you have to do twice the SEO work.

However, if you have several, non-related products, it might be a good idea to use subdomains. Google uses the same approach for maps (maps.google.com), news (news.google.com), etc. The same technique could be used for local websites (e.g. boston.website.com and lasvegas.website.com).


Page Names

The page address is probably the part of your website that is easiest to adjust. It’s not always possible to change your domain name, domain extension or subfolder structure, but changing the name of a page takes up far less time.

When it comes to choosing a good page name, it’s all about usability and keywords. It’s best to demonstrate this with an example.

Compare both urls. Which one do your prefer?

breadcrumbs

You probably chose the latter. We can clearly see that it’s a product page for the Canon EOS 400d camera. When we take a look at the first url, we don’t have a clue about the content of the page.

Search engines have the same problem. If they only take a look at the url, they don’t know what the page is about. That’s why it’s a good idea to implement keywords. These keywords will show up in bold in the search results, making it easier for users to identify relevant pages.

You may have noticed that I use hyphens in URLs. It’s the recommended way to split keywords. The URL http://domain.com/white-tennis-shoes is much more useful than http://domain.com/whitetennisshoes. Other separators, such as underscores (_) plus-signs (+)... should also be avoided.


Static URLs vs Dynamic URLs

Dynamic URLs can usually be identified by looking for 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.

One of the most common URL-related myths is that search engines can’t crawl dynamic URLs. This might have been true in the past, but Google has made some progress in this area.

Some webmasters try to rewrite dynamic URLs to make them appear static. This is unnecessary because the content on the page can be crawled and Google can interpret the different parameters. The algorithm can figure out which parameters do not matter.


Conclusion

Using good URL structure is an SEO technique that is often neglected. However, it can give your site a considerable boost.

When it comes to choosing a good URL it’s all about usability; if it’s good for users, it’s good for search engines. That’s why you should use keywords instead of random words and numbers. Don’t make your subfolders too deep and use them over subdomains (unless you have two non-related products or services).

If you want to split words, always use hyphens in your URL instead of underscores or plus-signs. And when it comes to dynamic URLs; Google can still read and index them.


Further Reading

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