Many commercial websites are launched initially with a dozen or more pages. In the early stages, very few website owners are concerned about straightforward hierarchy, easy navigation or the quality of URLs. But as their platforms grow, it can become increasingly challenging for users to find the content and products they are searching for on websites that are a total mess. With a plethora of other options, frustrated potential clients are likely to go elsewhere.
Custom URLs help establish visual order and make your website user-friendly.
It is fairly easy to build a well-ordered website from scratch. Brands with a large number of product pages, blog posts and a variety of other content find it challenging to fix messy URLs and rearrange the architecture of their online platforms. When changes are introduced, they often lose traffic and backlinks, or overexploit redirects, which impairs their SEO performance.
Approaches to the creation of effective URLs can vary from case to case. But there are certain best practices you can safely adhere to that are likely to produce positive results. Check out the most powerful ones below.
1. Take Advantage of Your Keywords
Keep in mind that the availability of keywords in URLs does not directly impact your rankings, so there is no need to create unnecessary web addresses, just to accommodate all your keywords.
- If you plan to launch multiple pages dedicated to the same topic, select unique keywords and create custom URLs for each of them.
- Utilize helpful tools like Moz Keyword Explorer to gauge the search volume of popular niche keywords and select the strongest ones.
- Some words have multiple spelling options, for example, adviser/advisor, aesthetic/esthetic, analog/analogue, archaeology/archeology, barbecue/barbeque, disc/disk, etc. Before embedding such words in your URLs, make sure you have selected the option with the highest search volume.
2. Start Small, Think Big
Not all brands feel confident about what their website will look like in two to five years, what products they will stop manufacturing, which ones they will add to a catalog, whether they will start selling to new locations, etc.
Nonetheless, these issues are critical when planning a website structure that will serve your needs in the long run. If you do not think about them when your online platform is in its infancy, you will likely use multiple domains, confusing users and crawlers with unclear internal pathways.
Your URLs should reflect the key levels of page nesting.
For example, your homepage should have the first level of nesting and a URL like this: https://clothes.com.
Your product pages may have more levels of nesting, depending on the website hierarchy. The following example has eight levels: https://clothes.com/catalog/female/skirts/knitwear/long/collection-spring2019/item-9. With a well-defined URL, users instantly get an idea of the product’s properties and can easily trace a path to the correct page on your website.
A shorter option https://clothes.com/item-9 points to the same page. But this type of URL provides less information about the page’s content.
If you are only selling a handful of products, you can do with short versions that point directly to product pages from your home page. But as your catalog grows, you may need more detailed URLs.
Pages of the same level on your website should have the same URL length, either long or short. It is not uncommon to see websites that have both long and short URLs for pages with the same level of nesting. Once you decide on your URL format, adhere to it, and demand the same from your product and marketing teams, if they are allowed to create new pages on your website. All employees should closely collaborate and have similar ideas about the development of your brand.
Of course, you are unlikely to foresee all future twists, but the more you plan, the smoother your road to success will be, and the fewer resources you will lose.
3. Choose Static URLs over Dynamic Ones
Search engines crawl and index dynamic and static URLs equally well. However, the latter perform better from a UX point of view, since they reflect product properties rather than random strings of symbols.
Many websites have duplicate pages that differ exclusively in URL parameters.
- Two pages in your catalog can feature almost identical products that differ in color and have URLs with the following parameters: color=blue and color=white.
- Or for a certain item, you can prescribe the same parameters in somewhat different ways, hoping to create two different URLs: website.com/skirts?style=lush,short and website.com/skirts?style=lush&style=short.
In both these cases, your web addresses may be perceived as duplicate, since they deliver very similar information about page content.
Look at three URL versions that will signal duplication to Google:
- https://website.com/items/female/shoes/red.html – static, non-parameterized page.
- https://website.com/items/female?category=shoes&color=red – a web address has the “category” and “color” URL parameters and delivers the same information as a non-parameterized option.
- https://website.com/items/female/shoes/red.html?limit=15&sessionid=555 – the URL indicates that the number of results is limited to 15 and a session ID is 555, but this is still the same content.
The frequent use of parameters on your website can reduce its SEO performance, since a large part of the content will be perceived by Googles as duplicate.
Leverage Google’s helpful URL Parameters tool to hide URL versions with parameters from crawling. But note that for duplicate pages that do not use parameters, it is best to take advantage of canonical tags.
Also, keep in mind that it is reasonable to use the URL Parameters tool only if:
- Your website has over 1000 pages;
- You know that Googlebot indexes a significant number of duplicate web addresses that deliver the same information and differ exclusively in the use of parameters, as in the case with website.com/skirts?style=lush,short and website.com/skirts?style=lush&style=short.
Refrain from the use of URL Parameters unless you are knowledgeable about SEO and understand what they are doing. If used incorrectly, the tool can do more harm than good, and can cause improper crawling of your content: Google may even start bypassing some meaningful pages without ever notifying you.
4. Keep it Short
Some key guidelines:
- In URLs, an underscore separates parts of a single word, while a hyphen separates individual words. It is important to understand the difference to avoid distorting the signals you send to crawlers.
- It is pointless to use the same word multiple times within the same web address, hoping to increase your performance in SERPs. For example: https://clothes.com/skirts/knitwear-skirts/long-skirts/skirts-spring2019. Only the first mention will be taken into account, while the others are absolutely irrelevant and useless.
- Limit the number of conjunctions and prepositions in the URLs of your product pages. Some SEOs recommend that you never use them. They can make the URLs of informative pages appear awkward, and obscure their meaning. For example, if the title of an informative article sounds like this: “How to Make the Most of Your Weekend”, an URL https://website.com/how-make-most-your-weekend may confuse users.
5. Create an XML Sitemap
While HTML sitemaps are mainly created for human users and contain comprehensive information on website structure, an XML sitemap is a purely technical document targeted at search engines. It provides a list of the URLs you deem most important on your website and want to get indexed.
A sitemap reflects the state of your content and the relationships between your pages and files. For example, by adding pages to a sitemap, you can signal to Google when they were last revised, how often updates are made, whether language options are available, and other relevant information.
Proper linking allows Google to easily travel throughout your website and assess all its important content. Of course, the availability of a sitemap does not guarantee 100% indexing and crawling, but it definitely improves your SEO performance.
Be sure to create a sitemap if your website is:
- new and has external resources linked to it;
- featured in Google News or accommodates lots of visual content;
- has many pages that are interlinked or isolated from the main content.
6. Consolidate the SEO Power of All Your Platforms
Most brands have at least two website versions: www and non-www. Also, it is a common occurrence to have non-secure (HTTP) and secure (https) versions.
It is recommended to create 301 redirects to re-route users from old pages that no longer function, to their new clones. This keeps you from losing backlinks that were accumulated on earlier platforms and consolidates your SEO power.
As an alternative, you can select your preferred website version in Google Search Console. However, this option works only with Google and root domains. In all other cases, you will still have to use 301 redirects, which we will consider in the next section.
A proper URL structure should be:
- User-friendly. Use keywords instead of random symbol strings to give users an idea of a page’s content before they visit it.
- Concise. Include only the key details that reflect the website hierarchy and product properties in your URLs.
- Well-planned and consistent. Predict the growth of your website when it is still in its infancy to assure straightforward navigation over the years, and avoid the overexploitation of redirects.
- Static. Dynamic URLs can cause fluctuations in your SEO performance. To ensure solid results, it is best to use static parameters.
- Clear to search engines. A properly arranged XML sitemap is a must if you want search robots to understand your SEO signals and strengthen your rankings.
You need to come to terms with the fact that your rankings will never be stable. There are numerous small and large factors that can shift your position up or down on a daily basis. Closely monitor changes by conducting regular audits, analyzing data, searching for problems in your URL structure, and effectively addressing them.