Gavin Hirst - Wednesday 24th April 2013


Site architecture and the importance of URLs

A massively overlooked area of SEO can be a website’s URL structure and it is always one of the first things we look at here at Digital Hothouse. However there are also some pitfalls to avoid along the way and it is important not to get too hung up on creating the perfect URL, especially if you have a site that has been around for a number of years.

Do you need to change your URLs?

We are going to take a look at some of the reasons why you might want to change the way your URLs are structured and show how this can help with your SEO activity. We are also going to look at some of the potential pitfalls of changing your URL structure and how to combat these.

1. Long URLs

Do you have particularly long URLs on your site? It is a bit of a misconception that web browsers cannot detect overly long URLs, however it could be potentially damaging to the usability (and therefore the likelihood of a click through to your site) of your site as well as your ability to include relevant keywords which are detected by Google.

Other potential issues from long URLs include:

* Difficult to read in a web browser
* Could get cut off when cutting and pasting
* Could get cut off when sharing via social media
* Could dilute the strength of keywords

If you currently have long URLs on your site, it is important to look at how the folders are structured and therefore how the URLs are generated. It is also worth considering the length of your title tags if this is an issue on the site. If your URL is generated automatically from the URL, it may be worth considering a manual override using the URL box in your content management system (if you have an option, and if you don’t you probably need a new CMS).

2. Dynamic URLs

Related to the length of your URL are dynamically generated URLs. These can often be found on e-commerce sites or any site that pulls in information from a database and basically they add a numerical reference to as the URL to identify that page.

Example:

http://www.mysite.com/store.php?=id89563936&style=10=session12344

This is common to URLs seen across the web and in this example, it could be something like a dress in a size 10 or something similar. So, what are the risks with dynamic URLs? These could be some of the potential issues:

* Contains no relevant keywords for SEO or the user’s benefit
* Is difficult for the user to understand (which could lead to lower click throughs)
* Could lead to problems of duplicate URLs if there are a number of similar products in different sizes/colours etc
* They are long which incurs the same issues as raised in point 1

Setting up your site so that is pulls in relevant information about the products or service you offer is a far better way of generating URLs that mean something to the user. By pulling in product descriptions, it is likely that keywords will then form part of that URL. This can be difficult to do for certain types of site, however we can work with you to help ensure that the URLs generated by your site when you create a new page are user friendly. Sometimes you may find that the product descriptions that are pulled in by the CMS are too long and you end up with the same issues as identified in point 1.

  1. 3. Keywords – URLs

When it comes to your URL, you can come across issues of either too many keywords or not enough. We have already looked at examples above where keywords are not included in dynamically generated URLs or carry little weight if they are found at the end of a long URL, however there are also issues if you attempt to keyword stuff your URLs.

Example:

http://www.mysite.com/keywords-keyword-keywords-keyword-keywords

Although Google is unlikely to enforce a huge penalty on you for this sort of behaviour, it will act as more of an indicator that this practice may also go on in your title tags, header tags and content and indicate that your site may be spammy.

Make sure you focus on identifying unique URLs that feature the main keywords identified for that piece of content. Ensuring that the title tags, header tags and copy all then support that keywords and other identified is crucial.

How should a URL be structured?

SEOMoz.org have produced a nice little cheat sheet to help you structure your URLs in a friendly way. You can see from the example that the structure is important and it is also helpful for usability if you separate the ‘path’ and ‘page’ information with hyphens. If your CMS does not do this automatically, you may have to enter the hyphens using the output uri function.

Issues of changing your URL?

So, now you know about how to structure your URLs in the correct way, what are the potential pitfalls of changing from your current structure:

* Your page has built up considerable link juice
* Your site becomes a warren of 301 redirects as you try for the perfect URL
* You permanently lose ranking because your new structure is no better than your old one

Make sure that the changes you are making are definitely for the better. If there is only going to be a marginal increase in the usability and SEO benefit of changing your URL, it may not be worth the time and effort. Having said that, there are many thousands of sites out there that would hugely benefits from a URL overhaul and if you think that could be your site, then drop us a line and we can see how we can help.

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