Why do we post so much about Search Engine Optimisation on this blog? Because adopting good SEO practices on the Webstruxure website made a major difference to our own business, by greatly increasing the volume of leads and conversions. And if it can make a major difference to our business, then it can make a major difference to yours.
In this post, we dive into a specific aspect of SEO: how to structure the URLs (web page addresses) so that they perform well for Google, and also for your users. We’ve focused here on the less technical aspects of this topic – like any aspect of SEO, you can always get more technical if you want to! Here are seven recommendations for better-structured URLs.
1. Make Your URLs Easily Readable
Let’s start with a straightforward one: URLs that are easily readable by humans are a whole lot better for Google too.
Google’s search results display the URL of a page under that page’s title, and there’s evidence that many users look at the URL before deciding to click on the link. So if your URL is a mess of indecipherable letters, numbers, and special characters, your users will be less likely to click on it – and Google won’t like it so much, either.
Google doesn’t care whether or not you include ‘filler’ words (also known as stop words) such as “and”, “of”, and “the” in your URLS. If your URL is approaching 80 characters, long enough that it may be difficult to read, we suggest removing those. If your URL is no more than 60 characters with stop words included, it may be better to leave them in to increase readability.
2. Include Keywords In Your URLs, But Don’t Go Overboard
There was a time when shady SEO operatives practised stuffing your site with keywords in the belief that, the more often a keyword was repeated in the URL, title, header and body content, the better the page would rank. But Google caught on, and now keyword stuffing is penalised. If your primary search keyword is “snorkels”, then we strongly advise against URLs like this:
Such a keyword-stuffed URL will hinder, not help, your efforts to get your Snorkels product page to rank highly in Google searches.
But it’s still a good idea to include your primary search keyword, in this case “snorkels” in the page URL. This URL clearly labels what the page is about and does not engage in keyword stuffing:
Of course, you’re unlikely to be targeting only one keyword – you may have keyword phrases, and you will probably have more than one. That also helps you build a meaningful URL that’s closer to the optimum URL length of 50-60 characters.
3. Your URL, Page Title and Page Header Should Be Closely Aligned
Here’s an example of this from the Webstruxure blog:
- URL: https://webstruxure.co.nz/email-marketing/clean-up-your-mailing-list/
- Page Title: Clean Up Your Mailing List – Keeping Email Marketing Fresh
- Page Header: Clean Up Your Mailing List – Keeping Email Marketing Fresh
Here the three elements are very closely aligned – and two are identical.
The correspondence between these three elements doesn’t necessarily have to be so close, but it does need to be evident. The aim is that:
- Each of the title, URL and page header (the H1 header at the top of your body content) clearly states the topic of the page
- It is clear that each of these elements is describing the same page
That would be good practice even if SEO wasn’t a factor. If there’s a lot of divergence between the page title, URL and header, then users are likely to get confused about what page they’re on.
4. Use Hyphens Rather Than Underscores Between Words In URLs
This might seem a pretty obscure point, but it can have major implications, because Google treats hyphens and underscores in significantly different ways.
Let’s suppose your page is about snorkels and wetsuits – and those are your primary and secondary search keywords. Which URL should you choose out of these options?
The answer is: unless you’re selling a product that combines snorkels and wetsuits, choose the former. That’s because Google treats a hyphen as a word separator, whereas it treats and underscore as a word joiner.
In other words, the “snorkels-wetsuits” page could be returned as a search result if the user searches for “snorkels”, “wetsuits”, or even “snorkels wetsuits”. But the “snorkels_wetsuits” page may only be returned if the user searches for “snorkels_wetsuits”, which is probably not what you intended.
5. Avoid Non-Alphanumeric Characters In URLs
This is really an instance of the first point above: you should keep URLs as simple and as readable as possible, but populating them with a bunch of special characters and hash signs reduces readability.
There are two main reasons some URLs have these characters:
They are automatically created by your content management system
A good, modern content management system should not include these characters into your URLs. However, if your CMS has not been updated for some time, it may still produce URLs where part of the path includes characters that mean a lot to that CMS, but very little to humans. If your CMS does that, it’s almost certainly time to get a new one.
The codes have been deliberately added to aid with social media tracking
This is much more common. News organisations, for example, want to keep track of how their content is shared by users – so if you click on a social share button on a newspaper website, you might end up sharing a URL that looks something like this illustrative example:
where the “?” introduces a set of parameters that help zzxx.com to track how its content is being shared.
This is a much less clear-cut case than the first reason. In the Internet age, news organisations’ entire business models may depend on accurate tracking of how content is shared, and so the price in URL readability is one they may be prepared to pay.
But if your website is not in the news business, and if your priority is to keep your URLs as simple and readable as possible, you probably don’t need the indecipherable tracking code.
6. Stick To Lower Case
“But your site’s headlines are always in Title Case!”, I hear you protest. That’s true – we’ve been told that Google prefers all words in headlines to be in title case, so that’s what we do.
But for URLs, it’s the opposite. To avoid the risk that URLs containing a mix of lower and upper case will be parsed by different systems in different ways, it’s best to stick to all-lowercase in URLs unless there is a specific business requirement to do otherwise.
7. Don’t Put Different Bits Of Your Website In Different Domains Unless It Can’t Be Avoided
Now we’re starting to get into the more technical side of optimising URLs – but we see this issue crop up reasonably often, so it’s worth mentioning here.
All the same, please be aware that in Point 7 we’re attempting a non-technical explanation of a highly technical topic – which is why we haven’t talked in more depth about the use of subdomains, etc. (If you have a specific issue in this area, please contact us.)
Most websites are found at a domain, like this:
And you’ll note that our blog is also part of that domain:
But that’s not always the case. We sometimes see examples like this:
where the company’s blog is on a different domain, like this:
There may be genuine, non-SEO reasons why this needs to be the case. But in SEO terms, it’s much better to bring all of your website within the same domain – so a much better option is
Another, less preferred option is to use a subdomain of the main domain, such as blog.zzxx.com – but that’s where the more detailed technical SEO issues start to kick in.
As you can see, there is plenty to think about when planning the URLs for your new site – and this article doesn’t go all the way to the deep end of the SEO pool. If you’re starting to feel that you need a swimming instructor before getting in the water, please contact us to find out more about how we can help you with search engine optimisation for your site.
Webstruxure is here to make the web work smarter. Let us know how we can help you for user friendly, mobile friendly and search engine friendly websites. Our services include:
Tim works as a content strategist and project manager for Webstruxure, helping clients make sure their websites meet user needs and business goals. He is also a published author of fiction and poetry, with seven books published, and has co-edited two poetry anthologies. You can find out more about Tim’s writing on the New Zealand Book Council website.
Also published on Medium.