While it may seem like a minor detail, we can’t tell you how many times we’ve spotted bad URLs in a website…in fact, it’s one of the first things that jump out at us when evaluating site from strictly the ability to be crawled and indexed.
Search engines do in fact take time to crawl just about any URL, no matter how badly it’s set up.
Taking a little bit of time to manage your URLs to ensure they display properly though can provide multiple benefits – in terms of both SEO and usability.
Take this URL for example:
This “breadcrumb” style that includes keywords is best type of URL to have. Since we know keywords in your URL is a ranking factor in Google’s algorithm, this “general to specific” approach makes the URL easily crawlable. Also, a URL like this already has anchor-text embedded in it so even if it’s listed on other pages like we’ve done above, you will still get some of the keyword ranking benefit…just like if you link to it using actual anchor-text (i.e. website optimization company).
Back in 2009, we wrote a post on proper anatomy of a URL and included a cheat sheet developed by Dr. Peter Meyers at SEOMoz. It’s handy to have a copy of this cheat sheet available as you evaluate your site’s URLs.
Our example above differs from some of the URLs you’ve likely encountered in the past. These old style, “dynamic” URLs include a bunch of characters. While these long URLs can be indexed, any symbols (parameters) like a “&” or “@” will dilute the impact of keywords that may be in the URL.
These older style URLs also may include information like user ID, session ID, sort code, print code and other parameters that’s transmitted outside of the URL. If a webpage address includes parameters, it is possible that you can run into duplicate content issues.
Auditing your site’s URLs and addressing any issues
A site’s content management system, or CMS, can lead to issues with your URLs. Some systems use characters like a “#” or “%” that are not legal to use. Others generate multiple URLs for the same page, leading to duplicate content issues.
By using Google and Bing webmaster tool reports and taking a careful look at the URL syntax for all of your pages, you should be able to determine if URLs are hindering your search rankings and usability of your website.
First thing you should look for are unsafe characters. There are several that aren’t even allowed in fact, and others that will not be indexed. Google doesn’t read anything past a pound character (“#”) for example. Therefore, if you have that symbol in your URL, search engines will ignore the symbol and anything past it.
For example, …website-optimization-company.html#seo-friendly-url will not be indexed. But if you change it to …website-optimization-company/seo-friendly-url, it will.
Other items to look out for include:
- Underscores – problematic for SEO since search engines see these characters as connectors. Consider using dashes to separate words.
- Mixed case – with the exception of machine names, URLs are case-sensitive. Having mixed cases can lead to duplicate content. The easiest way to deal with this issue is to have your website automatically rewrite all URLs into lower-case.
If you have long URLs with lots of parameters and other characters, how you transition to an SEO-friendly URL structure will depend a lot on the CMS system you’re using. Here are a few general options you can consider for cleaning up your site’s URLs and dealing with any duplicate content issues:
- Reconfigure your CMS platform to generate one consistent URL for each page of content
- Do a 301-redirect for any duplicate URLs to the new or correct version
- Add canonical tags (…a way of communicating the preferred page to Google) that will direct search engines to group duplicate content and combine their ranking signals
- Configure URL parameters in webmaster tools that direct search engines to ignore URL parameters that may cause duplicate content
Check out this piece from Tom Schmitz in Search Engine Land for more information on unsafe URL characters and other ways of dealing with bad URL structure.
Understand that not all CMS systems are created equal. You may be using one that will not allow you to modify the URL structure to be SEO-friendly. Even if you can’t optimize your URLs for the search engines, you should definitely make sure they meet minimum standards. For more information on these standards, click here.
Does your site have a bad URL structure?
If so, how badly is it affecting your position in the search engines?