How to do SEO friendly URLs

By Leon Tranter | SEO

Oct 03
seo friendly url

The URL of a page is one of the most important things to get right. It is the actual address of your page! This article will explain what a URL really is, why they are so important, and what is the best URL structure for SEO purposes. There are lots of actionable tips on how to optimize your SEO URL structure in 2018. Including some really important WordPress settings that you might not know about. So let’s get started!

What is a URL?

URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator, and is basically a unique address of a resource on the world wide web. URLs are how we find websites and pages on those websites.

They are actually made of five components:

  • A scheme or protocol, such as http or https (secure http)
  • A hostname, which could be an IP address (i.e. a string of numbers) but is usually a domain name (a human readable name that resolves into an IP address)
  • A path (a folder or file or resource name)
  • A query (an optional parameter put after a ?)
  • A fragment (an optional parameter put after a #).

The last two are optional but the first three are mandatory so let’s focus on those.

url uniform resource locator

Scheme

A scheme describes the protocol for accessing the page or resource. The web generally works via HTTP or Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, although much of it is moving over to HTTPS (which is basically a secure version of HTTP).

Other common protocols are FTP (for transferring files) and SMTP (for sending email). For the purposes of fixing the SEO aspects of your URLs, we’ll assume everything is HTTP (or actually HTTPS, see below).

Host name

This is usually called a domain name, which is a human readable form of the actual IP address of the host or server. Domain names themselves have several parts: a subdomain (an optional first part before the real name), the domain name itself, and the top level domain extension. Sometimes the top level domain also has a country code as part of it.

Resource name

This is the part after the slash that comes after the domain name. It is basically the name of the page, file or resource that is served by a particular host. This is the most important part from an SEO perspective.

How to do SEO friendly URLs

There are some basic tips to doing URLs properly. If you get all of these right, it can really help you with your Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Keep in mind that you are trying to keep two people happy: your readers, and Google (and Bing I guess too, but let’s assume it’s just Google). And these are related.

If Google likes your site, it will put it up in search results, which will make people find it. And if people find it and click on it and like your page, Google notices this (it actually pays close attention to how people interact with search results via a system called RankBrain), and will help put it higher too.

So you want your URLs to look nice to people and make sense to Google. It’s important to keep both audiences in mind.

Choose the right top level domain

You generally want to choose a simple respected top level domain like .com, .org or .net. While a more obscure one won’t specifically hurt your google ranking, it might look less familiar or trustworthy to readers. And if less of them click your link, you will fall further in the search results due to Google’s RankBrain algorithm.

If you are a local business or only interested in customers from one country, then you should go for a country coded top level domain like .com.au or .co.uk. If you are not, then you should go for a general one without a country code, like.com.

Google has confirmed this has an effect on search rankings for local businesses.

Include your keyword

You should try and put a keyword that you are ranking for in your URL. This is pretty obvious. It is not a huge ranking signal but it certainly helps. And there isn’t any reason not to include it. It could definitely help with click-through rate too.

Don’t overdo keywords

While you want your keyword or part of it in your URL, don’t go crazy with keywords! mysite.com/seo-tips-for-better-ranking is fine, but mysite.com/seo-tips-seo-boost-seo-rank-seo-win-seo is just bad for a number of reasons. It looks terrible to Google and humans.

Make it short

OK this is an interesting one. Backlinko did a big study of SERPs and found a strong correlation between shorter URL length and SERP position.

Which is great. But to me, that doesn’t really prove causation.

Maybe smart webmaster and SEO nerds just like short URLs, and they’re also the people doing a hundred other things that actually matter to SEO. Google have been evasive on this and I think the jury is still technically out on this URL length matter.

However, if your URL is human friendly and easily readable, that definitely helps with clickthrough rate, and that definitely helps with ranking.

So I would generally go for shorter URLs. But don’t go crazy stripping everything out of them. Some people say you need to remove all the stop words (like a, in, is, are, and so on) from your URLs but that is simply untrue.

Words separated by hyphens

Don’t run words together, separate them. It makes for more readable URLs and that’s good for everybody. And Google has told us very clearly to use hyphen instead of underscores, so listen to them and use hyphens.

Use lowercase letters

Always use lowercase letters. Webservers running on a Microsoft operating sytsem will be ok with translating upper to lowercase letters but Unix based ones won’t and might blow up if someone gets the case wrong.

Avoid special characters

Don’t use weird characters like brackets, dollar signs or whatever. Most of them will theoretically work, but they make the URL less readable, and also make it look much less trustworthy.

Which site would you rather go to, www.mysite.com/blog/great-seo-article? Or www.mysite.com/d&1kdH$/C{4]d*78812{D}*]LK2?

Use fewer folders

Some sites have folders for their resource names. So for example a company might have a website with a blog, and the blog part of their website is /blog. So a blog article address would be www.mysite.com/blog/article1
Which is ok. But don’t go crazy.

I would avoid any more than two levels of folders. Don’t go doing things like www.mysite.com/blog/articles/bestarticles/seo/tips/artilce1

People don’t generally run into problems like this on WordPress unless they are trying to put articles into folders by month or year, which isn’t a good practice in general anyway.

Use HTTPS

This one is a no-brainer. Move your sites from HTTP to HTTPS! All of them, right now! Google hates (really hates) http and is penalizing sites running on http. It’s not a big penalty now but it will likely grow bigger over time.

And Chrome is now showing nasty messages about sites not being secure if you are on http, which will probably increase your bounce rate and reduce your dwell time. So just do it.

Make them readable

url seo best practicesIf you follow the last few tips, and make sure your slug (the actual name of your resource or page) matches and describes your article, you will have a good human readable name. And that will make Google and humans happy.

So an unfriendly URL example (that breaks the rules I’ve described so far) would be something like http://articles.website.com/content/seo/articles/seourl?p=12[9]$&id=41

A friendly URL example would be something like:

https://website.com/better-seo-url

WordPress URL settings for SEO

Now here is a common mistake new bloggers make with WordPress and where you can get into a lot of trouble. WordPress calls the slug or resource name of your pages a “permalink”.

And the scary thing is, the default WordPress setting for your permalink is a really bad one!

I have no idea why but by default, WordPress uses a number after a ? as your default permalink, which is just terrible.

So your first article would be www.mysite.com/?p=1, the second would be www.mysite.com/?p=2, and so on. This is bad! It breaks almost all of the rules for good URLs.

So the very first thing you should once you’ve installed WordPress on a new blog is to go Admin settings, Permalinks, and change it from the default Plain option to Post Name setting. That will set the default slug to be the title of your post.

You might want to override that to add or remove some words, which is fine. You can do that at the top of each particular post.

Avoid file extensions where possible

Try to avoid file extensions like .asp or .php. If you change your web technology option, all your URLs will become invalid and you will have to set up 301 redirects all over the place. By default this won’t be a problem for WordPress, since it doesn’t use these extensions.

The only time it is ok is if you are setting the address of an actual file for someone to download, like a PDF. In which case, file extensions are fine.

Prefer subfolders to subdomains

Try to use subfolders over subdomains. Google sees subdomains as really a different site, and this makes SEO much more complicated. The only time you should use subdomains is if you are hosting different sites for different countries or different clients or something.

Use but don’t overuse 301 redirects

If your URLs change then you will need to set up 301 redirects so that Google (and people!) can find the new address. Just make sure not to go crazy and have 301 redirects leading to 301 redirects and so on. Google gets cranky if it gets redirected more than a couple of times.

Use the Canonical tag where appropriate

If you have duplicate content, use the canonical tag (technically it is a canonical attribute on a link tag, if you want to split hairs). This is done by adding <link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.mysite.com/someresource”> or similar to your page.

The canonical reference tells Google the address of the original source of the content.

For example, I cross-post my blog posts on Medium. To make sure Google understands that my blog is the real original source of the content, my Medium posts all have the canonical tag added, pointing to my original blog article.

Don’t use dates in URLs

You might be tempted to put dates in your article names. These are a form of “keyword modifier” and can let you pick up traffic long-tail versions of short or medium tail keywords.

For example, instead of trying to rank for “best wireless headphones”, you can write an article about best wireless headphones 2018. You then have a better chance of getting traffic for people searching for best wireless headphones 2018.

However, don’t put 2018 in the url. Just put it in the title, Heading 1 and body content. So in this example, your title and Heading 1 would be “Best Wireless Headphones of 2018”, but your URL would be /best-wireless-headphones.

If you put 2018 in the URL (i.e. /best-wireless-headphones-2018), your URL will get out of date quickly. By the time 2019 rolls around, nobody will want to click on your URL.

You could update it of course, but now you will have to put a 301 redirect, and you’ll suffer a fall in the search rankings as your previous URL no longer works.

It’s much easier to just update the page title and H1, and not have to worry about the URL. It is basically “evergreen” or future-proof if you leave year or date out of it.

Summary

I hope you found these tips for SEO optimized URLs useful! Remember, the important thing is to keep URLs simple, secure and human-readable. If you do that, you can’t really go wrong!

If you’re still unsure about the Google’s SEO URL parameters, you can use this SEO friendly URL checker.

Do you have any other tips or questions about SEO and URLs? Or just SEO in general? Please leave them in the comments!

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