Headlines are important for content, but from the perspective of search engine optimization the URL is the fundamental start for categorizing an article. It is literally the address of each page. Everything hangs off of that root. Thus, it’s important that your URLs have the right secret sauce so they pull their SEO weight. Let’s go over several methods for improving URLs.
What a URL is not
Just to be clear, the URL is the address that appears in your browser’s address bar when you are on a web page. It is not the title of the page (that appears at the top of the window), nor is it the meta tag.
In the above image, the URLs are the lines in green. The titles are the lines in blue and the metas are the black text. We’ll use these as our examples throughout the article.
Anatomy of a URL
There are three portions to a URL from an SEO perspective. They are the protocol identifier, the domain, and the slug. In the Wikipedia link, these parts would be:
- Protocol identifier: https://
- Domain: en.wikipedia.org/
- Slug: wiki/Search_engine_optimization
Most of the SEO power will lie in the slug, but there are SEO improvements that can be done for the other two as well. The key here is to identify the issues and act upon them. It can be easy if you have a small site but if it’s a big one where the page count goes into millions it’s impossible to manually check each of the URLs for possible problems without investing in a good marketing tool that will crawl your site URLs and identify issues.
For web pages, the two protocols are HTTP and HTTPS. For SEO, the latter is the way to go. HTTPS is the secure version of HTTP and Google has greatly prioritized sites that use HTTPS to secure the domains with encryption. While it may cost a little to buy an SSL certificate every year, the boost in SEO may be worth it.
Use subdomains, rather than multiple domains, if you must
Your domain name is the root that all of your other pages hang on. SEO analysis starts with the root page of your domain and then filters through the rest of your website. This is why it’s important not to split your business across multiple domains unless it is necessary. Each domain split dilutes the overall SEO power of your brand.
However, sometimes you do need a bit of separation to make your site easier to navigate or to create site divisions. The Wikipedia link is a good example. The “en” before the “wikipedia.org” shows that page is on the “en” subdomain of Wikipedia. Wikipedia would get way too complicated if every language they hosted was filed under the same domain. The subdomain allows the site admins to organize their pages. Google does the same thing with their services. Images, Gmail, and Drive are all subdomains off of the google.com domain.
One instance where you may want to use a separate domain is a PPC landing page. Some businesses like to create separate domains for offerings that aren’t meant to be found through a standard search, but through PPC management company ads or a link in another piece of content. This is usually a deliberate tactic.
If you want to avoid subdomains, another tactic is to create a subdirectory under your main domain. For instance, your blog might be on http://site.com/blog/ The example for SearchEngineLand.com uses this tactic. They put their guides under a /guide/ subdirectory. This lets humans know that whatever follows will be a guide of some sort.
There may be technical challenges for choosing one or the other depending on your current setup. Your website maintainer and SEO professional should be able to help you weigh whether or not it would be a good idea to use these techniques for your situation.
Rules for slugs
The slug is where keywords really shine, but slugs are more than just a bunch of keywords. They are also identifiers for humans to understand what a link is about by just looking at the link. The Moz slug in the examples says “beginners-guide-to-seo”. It’s easy to tell what the page is about by looking at that.
Thus, URLs should be readable for humans as well as bots. These days, if it’s readable for a human then it’s readable for a bot. Don’t even think about using the URL to stuff a bunch of keywords. It’s not good in the body of your content and it’s not good in your URLs either.
That said, the slug is the ideal place to put in a keyword that is related to the overall topic of the page. The search query for the above list is “search engine optimization”, and we can see that all of the links either have the full query or have “seo” in the slug. Sticking to one keyword or one keyword phrase will keep you on the right track.
Note that the slugs match closely to the titles of the example page. You don’t want the two to be too different or search engine bots might get confused. There doesn’t need to be an exact match, though there could be if the title is short enough. But a close similarity will boost the score.
You gotta keep ‘em separated
Next, let’s talk about word separation. You can’t use spaces due to the rules for how URLs are built. If you ever see %20 in a URL, that’s a site that tried to use spaces. It makes for ugly and unreadable URLs. Instead, the accepted practice is to use hyphens or underscores instead of spaces in slugs. Hyphens are much more common than underscores. It’s a good idea to avoid all special characters besides hyphens or underscores in your slugs. Otherwise, you could end up with a percent code in your URL.
Be especially careful of apostrophes. Notice that the Moz slug uses “beginners” rather than “beginner’s”. The latter is grammatical, but it would ruin the slug. This is one of the few cases where ignoring grammar rules can help your SEO. The bots are smart enough to figure it out.
A stop word in natural language processing is a word that doesn’t help the program classify a particular phrase or sentence. These words are mostly grammatical markers. They can be used to tell a search engine spider, for instance, where a keyword phrase begins and where it stops.
Search engines have gotten far better at incorporating the grammatical intent of stop words into their categorizations. However, for URLs, adding stop words usually just adds extra length to your domain that isn’t necessary for understanding. SEO plugins like Yoast will warn you if you use stop words in your slugs. There is no canonical list of stop -words published by search engine companies.
One final tip for the slug is to always use lowercase. URLs can technically use uppercase words in the slug portion, but in practice this makes it hard for others to find your pages. Also, depending on your site, site pages may be case sensitive.
Consider a site that has two pages:
These might lead to two completely different pages. This is what is meant by case sensitivity. Worse, they could lead to the same page but a search engine spider could count them as two different pages. This would lead to a duplicate content ding against your SEO scores.
Fortunately, the solution is simple. Use lowercase in all slugs.
Avoiding duplicate content issues
Duplicate content is bad. If Google thinks that you are stealing content outright from someone else then it will ding you for it. But there are subtler forms of duplicate content problems. If you’re not careful, Google might index the same information twice on your site and consider it duplicate content.
Instead of diving into the specifics, let’s just say how to avoid it. First, exclude dynamic parameters in URLs if you’re using them. A dynamic parameter is marked by ? in a URL. Many shopping cart programs use these. You can use Google’s parameter exclusion tool to tell Google which parameters to ignore, or you can configure your robots.txt file and add “Disallow: /?” without quotes. If you have no idea what a robots.txt file is, your web host will and should be able to add it.
Second, use canonical URLs in your site code. Using the canonical tag tells search engines which specific form of a URL should match with each page. Moz has an excellent guide on canonicalization that can teach you why you should do it. It’s not difficult to do and it could kill a lot of duplicate content headaches.
Quite a lot of information for such a small bit of text! But since the URL is the core of any webpage it’s important to get it right the first time. Keep these tips in mind when you’re writing out your content and you’ll be that much better at improving your search rankings.