7 SEO Best Practices for Structuring URLs
One of the most often overlooked steps of creating a website page or blog post is optimizing the URL.
While all of the major content management systems (CMS) like WordPress give you the ability to edit the URL for each page, they will also auto-populate this field for you. Unfortunately, most of us tend to let the system do all of the work for us (and it does a predictably “ok” job) and we miss a great opportunity to maximize our own SEO efforts.
Consider this, the URL of a page is used both by search engines and humans to better understand what a page is about, even before they visit it.
If you want to continue letting the system do the work and generate your URLs for you, that’s fine – modern search engines have pretty sophisticated algorithms they use when it comes to understanding URLs and you’ll probably get by.
However, if you really want to maximize your SEO efforts and get the most bang for your buck, you can spend an extra few seconds implementing these 7 tips to optimize your URLs and take your website to the next level.
Disclaimer: before I get into the 7 best practices for structuring URLs, it’s important to note that you should apply these techniques moving forward with new pages and posts. I do not recommend you go back and change existing URLs on your website, especially if you have promoted those pages or shared them on social media, etc, just leave those as they are. Changing a page URL is like changing a phone number – people calling the old number won’t reach the new number.
In case that metaphor is confusing because I’m not always great with metaphors, I’m saying if someone tries to use the old URL after you change it they’ll get an error page. If you’re not experienced with writing 301 redirects to overcome this, don’t change existing page URLs.
Ok, moving on!
Use keywords at the beginning, not the end
When search engines evaluate URLs, the first 3-5 words in a URL are given more weight.
If you look at the title and URL of this post, you’ll notice I wrote it a very specific way. It says “7 SEO Best Practices for Structuring URLs” because I want to rank for SEO Best Practices, which is really the parent topic of structuring URLs.
I could have just as easily written "7 Best Practices for Structuring URLs." While this might look ok, the only target keyword found in it is “structuring URLs” and it’s at the end, which means it doesn’t receive as much weight as words I don’t really even care about.
Keep URLs short
Shorter URLs tend to perform better than longer URLs. This doesn’t have as much to do with the search engines as it has to do with the people actively clicking on and sharing your links.
URLs that are short, sweet and descriptive make people feel more at ease clicking and sharing them. Consider the following URLs:
The first example URL is direct and to the point and you know exactly what you’re in for if you click that link. The second example still gets its point across but may get truncated because of its length. The third example brings us to our next point…
Use clean URLs
We’ve all seen URLs that look like unintelligible messes, filled with question marks and equal signs. This is actually how all dynamic URLs look by default when you’re using a CMS to manage your website. All of that ugly data tells the website which information needs to be pulled from the database.
Luckily, we use what are called “rewrites” to clean it up to get the “clean” or “pretty” URLs we’re used to seeing. Going back to our previous example:
- example.com/index.php?category=seo&sub-category=url-structure&url=7-seo-best-practices-for-structuring-urls BAD
- example.com/seo/url-structure/7-seo-best-practices-for-structuring-urls BETTER
- example.com/7-seo-best-practices-for-structuring-urls BEST
These “clean” URLs look more legitimate and less like spam. Also, they give users a pretty solid idea of what the page is going to be about.
It’s OK to include stop words in URLs
Stop words are words like a, an, the, by, for, of, or, and, but, have, how, etc.
Some people believe it’s best practice to remove these from the URL to help make the URL as short as possible and to include only the important words they want to rank for. I disagree for a few reasons.
The first reason is because modern search engines are smart. When they encounter a stop word, they simply ignore it because stop words are not relevant to the actual topic. Ignoring stop words also speeds up the process of evaluating text for the search engines.
The second reason I believe it’s ok to include stop words in URLs is because sometimes, removing stop words can dramatically change the message you’re sending.
Consider the following example:
- With Stop Words: example.com/the-world-of-having-diabetis
- Without Stop Words: example.com/world-diabetis
Those seem like they would two completely different topics.
The third reason I’m ok with leaving stop words in URLs is because one of the prominent ideologies Google is constantly pushing for on the internet is having naturally flowing content. They don’t want you to try and trick or game the system. They want information and content to be, sound and read as natural as possible.
All of that being said, I do believe you CAN remove stop words if you want (use your own discretion) but I believe it’s completely OK to leave them in.
If you’re using a WordPress plugin that helps with SEO – make sure it’s not removing stop words from URLs by default.
Use hyphens to separate words, not underscores
While there are various schools of thought regarding the best way to separate words in a URL (some people use underscores), I prefer to go straight to the source. According to Google, hyphens are the recommended way to separate words in a URL.
However, if you are already using underscores, it’s not worthwhile to go back and change them.
Using hyphens also makes it easy for humans to read your URL as well.
Consolidate www & non-www versions of your domain
It’s important to first choose which version of your domain name you’re going to consistently use.
Are you going to write your domain name as www.example.com or example.com? You’ll notice here at Green Tree Media, I’ve chosen greentreemediallc.com over www.greentreemediallc.com because my domain name is already longer than I’d like so I wanted to drop the www.
Once you’ve made a decision, always stick with it. Make sure the version you’re not using redirects to your preferred version, using what is called a 301 Redirect. If you’re using a modern CMS like WordPress for your website this functionality is usually built in but it’s best to check. If you’re not using a modern CMS, you might need to ask your web developer.
The reason it’s important is because if you do not redirect one to the other, Google will interpret them as 2 different domain names that have identical, duplicate content.
Not to mention if people share your pages and some use the www version and some use the non-www version when writing your URL, you’re going to be splitting the credit you’re getting in the eyes of the search engine.
When in doubt, make URLs easy for humans to read first
If you’re going back and forth and unsure of the best way to write your URL, make it easy for humans to read rather than trying to pander to the search engines. It’s easy to get stuck in a loop where you’re constantly writing and re-writing your URL to optimize it before you publish it.
It’s easy to let our website’s auto-generate URLs for us and with so many people taking the easy way out, spending just a few seconds optimizing your URLs can give you a big advantage in the long run.
Feel free to leave any other suggestions or thoughts on how to best optimize your URLs in the comments section and we can talk about them!