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How to optimize URLs for search engines and people (Technical SEO for Profit, part 1)

Posted by Mark Nunney
Learn SEO
How to optimize URLs for search engines and people - Technical SEO for Profit series, part 1 - from Wordtracker, the leading keyword research tools

Both search engines and people prefer websites to have consistent, easy-to-read URLs. Here, Mark Nunney explains how to optimize your website’s URLs for search engines and humans alike.

Technical SEO for Profit

SEO success starts with technical SEO. Imagine your website is a racing car. As sure as a car must be mechanically sound if you want it to win races, your website must be technically sound if you want to win at search engine optimization (SEO).

Based on extracts from Mark Nunney’s best-selling e-book, SEO for Profit, this article is part of a series on technical SEO, including:

1) How to optimize URLs for search engines and people
2) How to get your pages found and preserve their link power
3) How to optimize your code for search engines
4) Tracking response for SEO with Google Analytics
5) Technical SEO checklist

Create clear, friendly URLs

A URL (uniform resource locator) is a web address. Like the one for this page:

http://www.wordtracker.com/academy/seo-clean-urls

URLs are displayed in your web browser’s address bar.

Here is a complicated URL (from an ecommerce site):

http://www.argos.co.uk/static/Browse/ID72/14418875/ c_1/1%7Ccategory_root%7CGarden+and+DIY%7C14418702/c_2/2%7 Ccat_14418702%7CBarbecues%7C14418875.htm

Search engines and users may have problems with complicated URLs.

Here is a clear, simple and descriptive URL (the recipe page from the rovingolive.com site):

http://www.rovingolive.com/recipes

Such clear and simple URLs rarely cause problems and might bring benefits.

For example, when seen on a search engine results page (SERP), a clear URL might reassure readers a page will deliver what they are searching for. This will increase the percentage of people that click (your site’s ‘clickthrough rate’, aka CTR).

Olive search on Google

A higher CTR is 'a good thing' in itself, as you'll get more site visitors.

A high CTR also suggests to Google that the page is relevant and popular for the search made. Such a ‘user behavior signal’ might lead Google to promote the page up the rankings, where you'll get more traffic. (It’s also good for avoiding a site-wide Panda slap)

Another benefit of a simple URL is that other sites are more likely to link to a simple URL, because it is easier to do so. They are more likely to paste in the full URL and do so without mistakes.

Also, if the full URL is used as the link text (the actual words clicked) then it may contain the linked-to page’s target keywords Getting such keyword rich links is a crucial part of SEO.

For example, the Roving Olive recipes page looked at above (URL: www.rovingolive.com/recipes) likely has recipes amongst its target keywords.

Parameters in URLs

A parameter is a variable that is added to a URL.

In the example below, ‘?storeId=10151’ is the parameter:

mysite.com/?storeId=10151

That example URL comes from a site using different parameters for different stores’ pages.

Where possible, instead of using parameters, it’s simpler, clearer and more descriptive to use real words. For example, you might refer to a store using this URL:

mysite.com/store-name

You can put the store number afterwards (if it must be there at all). Eg:

mysite.com/store-name/10151
Or:
mysite.com/store-name-10151

Where you can, minimize the number of variables your URLs have. As we said earlier, clear, simple, descriptive URLs are preferable to complicated ones.

But this is not a show stopper. Search engines have become increasingly good at handling even the most complicated URLs. For example, the long complicated URL we mentioned earlier - ‘http://www.argos.co.uk/static/Browse/ID72(and so on)’ - is real and appears on the first page of Google's UK results for a barbecue search. But, as we've said, short simple URLs are preferred.

Long ugly URL on Google results page

Even if search engines accept complicated URLs, you’ll never get people to like them. And it’s people who give and share the links you need to get your pages ranking well.

The difference between URI and URL

If you’re interested in the difference between a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) and a URI (Uniform Resource Indicator) then please don’t be. At least, not when reading this article.

All URLs are URIs. Which of course means that some URIs are not URLs. They are URNs (Uniform Resource Names), if you care. The distinction is not significant for any SEO work you're likely to do.

So, in these articles I’ll use the more common ‘URL’ to describe a place where something on a website is found whether or not the protocol (eg, http or ftp) and the domain (the sitename.com bit) is included.

In this article, the following are all URLs:

http://www.mysite.com
http://www.mysite.com/adirectory/apage.html
http://www.mysite.com/adirectory/apage
../adirectory/apage.html
../adirectory/apage

Each page should have one URL

Make sure that each page on your site only has one URL.

If the same page has more than one URL then you have created a duplicate page as far as search engines are concerned.

Too many duplicate pages make Google unhappy. This problem may even count towards you receiving a ‘Panda slap’. See Why Google Panda slapped quality sites

If you’ve read there’s no such thing as a penalty for duplicate pages then forget that because effectively there is and for two reasons:

1) Google's Panda update adversely affected a large number of sites that contain duplicate content.

2) Google don’t own the definition of the word penalty. Read on …

Let's assume you've inadvertently included two pages on your site with identical content (or created multiple URLs for the same content). If there are links (on your own site or from others) to both versions (both URLs) then your page’s potential link power is being diluted across them. This means the highest ranking of those pages will appear lower on search engine results pages (and get fewer visits and less response) than if all links went to just one page (one URL).

Google don’t call that a penalty because they didn’t apply a specific penalty for the duplicate pages. But I do because you’ll be penalized for the duplicate pages. If only by paying for the time to fix the problem …

The canonical URL is ‘the one’

If you have more than one URL for the same page then the main version is called the canonical.

If you have no choice but to create content that has more than one URL then make sure either:

www and non-www

One way that many sites create duplicate URLs is to allow the same pages to be served and seen as both www and non-www URLs. For example, both www.mysite.com and mysite.com serve the same page and can be seen in a browser’s address bar.

This applies to all pages, not just your home page. So, if you had these two pages on your site, you'd have a duplicate content problem:

www.mysite.com/apage
mysite.com/apage

If both non-www and www URLs are serving the page then you must:

• Choose which is to be the one seen (the canonical). Choose www or non-www.

• Make sure all URLs with the other (non-canonical) are 301-redirected to their canonical equivalent. Eg,

www.mysite.com is 301 redirected to mysite.com
www.mysite.com/apage is 301 redirected to mysite.com/apage

If you're using open source software like Drupal, it may be easy for you to create 301 redirects. Otherwise, speak to your site’s developers or your hosting company.

And here’s a starter lesson from Google with some links to further help:

http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=93633

• Use Google Webmaster Tools to let Google know which you have chosen.

In your Google Webmaster Tools account see ‘Preferred domain’ on Configuration > Settings.

The home page should have one URL

Your site’s home page is usually its most important page. It’s likely to be the most powerful page on your site because most sites’ home pages’ get more inbound links than others.

As such, it’s the page with the most potential to bring visits from search engines (and help other pages do so by sharing its link power with internal links).

Unfortunately, many sites have lots of different URLs for the home page. Some examples include:

examplesite.com/index.html
examplesite.com/home
examplesite.com/home.html
examplesite.com/page/Home/0,,1234,00.html

Fix the problem with the following actions:

  • Choose your home page’s canonical URL (make it the most simple possible).
  • Never link to any other version.
  • Add 301 redirects from any duplicates to the canonical if your site’s software insists on producing ‘duplicate URLs’ (or has done in the past).
  • If 301s are not possible then add rel=canonical tags instead.

Paginated URLs

Paginated URLs occur when a category page needs to create new pages because those it’s listing won’t fit on one page.

Eg, a category page listing different types of blue widget might list a maximum of 50 on a page but have 150 more to link to. The paginated pages are the three new pages that need to be created to list the 150 that wont fit on the first.

Those paginated pages might have URLs like these:

http://www.example.com/blue-widgets?page=1
http://www.example.com/blue-widgets?page=2
http://www.example.com/blue-widgets?page=3

You should add a relcanonical tag to the paginated pages with this code:

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.example.com/blue-widgets”>

Also ask your developers to add ‘rel=prev’ and ‘rel=next’ tags. See here for more information on how to set up those tags:

http://dev.w3.org/html5/spec-author-view/links.html#sequential-link-types

Tracking parameters

Tracking parameters are added to links to help you track who clicks what, where and when. With them, your analytics software can show you how effectively your editorial and marketing are.

A URL with tracking parameters might look like this (it’s the ‘?utm_=’ part at the end):

http://www.example.com/?utm_source=book&utm_ medium=text&utm_campaign=test

Google gives lots of helpful advice on this important subject and a tool for building your URLs here:

http://www.google.com/support/analytics/bin/answer.py?answer=55518http://www.google.com/support/googleanalytics/bin/answer.py?answer=55578

But Google gives advice from so many different places that it will inevitably not all be consistent or complete.

Missing here is that by adding tracking parameters you are creating duplicate pages (see ‘each page has one URL’ above). Doh!

Here’s how to fix this:

  • Add a relcanonical tag to the pages with the parameters. (See above):
  • Use the ‘Parameter handling’ settings on Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) to ask Google to ignore the utm parameters. On GWT find ‘Parameter handling’ on Configuration > URL Parameters.

If you've questions about how to create clean URLs or any other technical aspects of SEO, please let us know below.

More Technical SEO for Profit

This article is part of a series on technical SEO, based on extracts from Mark Nunney’s best-selling e-book, SEO for Profit:

1) How to optimize URLs for search engines and people
2) How to get your pages are found and preserve their link power
3) How to optimize your code for search engines
4) Tracking response for SEO with Google Analytics
5) Technical SEO checklist