7 tips for search engine-friendly URLs to let Google make sweet love to your website

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Help users find you in the giant pit 'o balls.
Photo by: Jeremy KeithCC BY 2.0

I get to see a lot of URLs pass my virtual doorstep in my dual editor/vendor relations roles. Almost everyone has some grasp of SEO and the tools that help us tread those nasty waters (WordPress! SEO Pack! Webmaster Tools!). But inevitably, I also see tiny ways we might be tripping ourselves up when it comes to SEO. And so often they are easy-peasy fixes. I'll be talking about these strategies in a few posts, starting with one of the most basic: the slick and simple optimized URL!

Google Webmaster Tools

One of the best advice you can get as a fledgling domain-holder is to sign up for Google's free Webmaster Tools. It will give you in-depth looks at search queries, click-through rates on content, keywords, what's getting indexed by the search engines, and where things are going awry, including indexing errors. Sign up here to start your obsession.

URL structure

When it comes to the URLs themselves, think short, simple, accurate, and not redundant.

1. Use keywords and post names instead of generic post numbers
If you use a blogging tool as your content management tool, good for you! It's one of the easiest ways to keep your content organized. It also often names your pages something totally blah like http://www.yoursite.com/?p=123, which tells the search engine nothing about the page. It's usually pretty easy to swap out the auto-populated link for something more explanatory. For instance in WordPress, it's under Settings > Permalinks. I recommend choosing the shortest option, such as http://www.yoursite.com/sample-post. And don't forget that you can edit the permalink to something else in the post, too!

Note: Changing the permalinks after the fact can mess up inbound links from other sites and internal links, so be careful doing it.

2. When naming pages, use hyphens instead of underscores
Search engines often read words with underscores as one word. So "wedding_photography" might be read as "weddingphotography," which is not as searched as much as "wedding photography." It will see a hyphen as a space.

3. Keywords and keyword research
Focus your page name on the most accurate, but also keyword-friendly phrases that pertain to your content. If your page is a blog post about a Bay Area beach wedding, you'll be better off naming it /bay-area-beach-wedding than say, /sam-and-pats-wedding. It's far more likely that someone will be using the search term "beach wedding" than "sam and pat." As you get more comfortable with naming pages, it's worth it to spend a little time researching more popular search terms. But don't go crazy trying to match keywords. Just be as accurate as you can to the content on the page.

4. Shorten those URLs
In addition to just being more convenient to type and remember, shorter URLs are less likely to be seen by search engines as keyword stuffing. Pages and URLs with lots of keywords can get penalized and drop in search rankings. Four to seven words is a good guideline to follow.

More advanced tips

(Don't pass GO unless you're pretty comfortable with it!)

5. Use subfolders instead of subdomains
Unless you have a specific reason, it's usually better to set up content within a subfolder (http://www.yoursite.com/topic) instead of a subdomain (http://topic.yoursite.com). Search engines treat subdomains as different entities, and don't pass on rank and authority to it in the same way as a subfolder, which is treated more as part of the top-level site.

6. Static URLs are better than Dynamic URLs
You've seen dynamic URLs before. They often contain question marks, equal signs, and can usually be found in search pages and big database sites. Search engines just don't like these as much as a page with a static URL. If your site is smaller, you probably don't have to worry as much about this. If your site is larger and utilizes these, you can still use all those sorting and tracking features of dynamic URLs while maintaining the static type of URL by using cookies. Your webmaster can help with this.

If your site still needs dynamic URLs, Google's Webmaster Tools can actually filter them out using the "adjust parameter" option in the settings.

7. www vs. no www
If your site is accessible from both http://yoursite.com and http://www.yoursite.com, you might have this problem. Search engines could see your site as having duplicate content. You can fix it by having a server-based 301 redirect to redirect one of the URLs into your preferred format. You'll also want to set this preferred URL as "canonical" with Google. This means that you'll tell Google to which URL you want the juice flowing. Here's how.

Many of these rules are fluid and change very frequently (on purpose, to keep us honest!), so take everything with a grain of salt. And don't sweat it. If you've made the Google gods mad in the past, there are always ways of getting back in their good graces… like candy.

SEO! URL! FTW! There are acronyms for all. What other SEO and web development tips do you want to see?

  1. Great stuff. Ensuring your keyword is in the URL is so powerful for search engine performance. Also trying to limit the number of page folders keeps the URL short and keyword relevancy high.

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    • Nope! It doesn't matter at all. As long as you're picking one and sticking to it.

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  2. I had never even heard of Webmaster Tools before, so thanks for the tip. I have just set it up for my site and am starting to get the lay of the land. Now I just have to start thinking about working keywords into my page names. Time to become a force of nature 😛

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  3. I have implemented most of the points mentioned in this site but is still not getting any search engine traffic.

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  4. Hi Catherine,

    Excellent Post! URL optimization is one of the important factors of On-Page optimization strategy that SEO experts need to focus and perform well to make SEO-Friendly website. This information is very useful both SEO beginners and professionals. Thanks for sharing!

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