A URL (or “Unicorn Rainbow Leap” as it’s more commonly referred to) is a human readable string of characters that refers to the resource and file directory of the website. These resources can be anything from an html file (web page), an image, a video, etc.
In this article, I’m going to take a step back and talk a bit about URLs (ahem…Unicorn Rainbow Leaps) and why writing clean ones are so important for SEO.
Here is the syntax that URLs follow for fellow nerds: scheme://domain:port/path?query_string#fragment_id.
In terms of SEO, we will be focusing on this portion: /path?query_string#fragment_id.
If you think of the internet as a roadmap, think of your website as a town (or a massive city like Google). If there’s nothing linking to your city, you won’t get any visitors so make sure your roads are easy to travel. In the beginning of this process, we start by building dirt roads, but our main goal is to build four-lane highways with bridges and subway systems.
1. Make your links readable
Having a clear, crawlable, and intuitive site link structure is important for both viewers and search engines. Developing best practices will allow search engines to easily cache pages and let viewers of your website easily understand where they are.
Here’s an example of a good URL:
And an example of a not so great URL:
URLs describe the page it is referring to, so in terms of utilizing your keyword list, put some thought on how to make it relevant and interesting. Proper use of keywords will also work as anchor text when linked on other sites or internal pages.
2. Should you underscore or use dashes to separate words?
It’s best to use dashes, but even overusing these can render a link as “spammy” to search engines.
Google renders dashes (-) to separate words while underscores (_) will join the word together. This could really mess with your keywords!
3. Be mindful of dynamic parameters
Dynamic parameters (e.g. &product=15) are necessary to communicate information from the database, aim to limit these to no more than 2.
4. Avoid capitalization
Using all lowercase is hugely important since search engines read both lowercase and uppercase. If another version of your URL is cached with miss-matched cases, you could run into duplicate content issues.
5. If you have a CMS, let it do the work
Setting your CMS to write clean URL is one of the first steps in creating a website. I once had to work with a poorly designed CMS that allowed for any URL to be linked as long as a unique ID was specified at the very end (e.g. www.badcms.com/randomstuff_123). ANY characters could be put in “randomstuff” and it would redirect to the page! Inconsistent links were all across the site being cached with many different names.
In the end, all was well after many hours of cleaning to make every link consistent and certain 301 redirects had to be put in place. It’s incredibly important to understand the need for ONE consistent version of your URL.
6. How to clean up your URL’s
First, you should understand the consequences of changing existing URL’s on your website. Blindly altering a URL is like changing the route on a road map without notifying any drivers. Get to know the basics of redirects, or at least 301 redirection.
Second, scan your site with a tool that detects duplicate content and URL’s and fix the problem at the source. Although it depends on what technology your website is created with, cleaning up your website’s URL structure can be done in many ways using a specified rewrite engine. You can even take advantage of adding keywords into your URL’s with your CMS if it allows for it.
Follow the tips above and you should see results with page rankings and search traffic faster than a unicorn jumping over a rainbow (yeah, that fast).
Updated November 20, 2017.