Thursday, 26 December 2013

What is an SEO-Friendly URL structure?

First of all, let me start by saying that it is always better to call in an SEO manager early in the development stage, so that there is no need to make sometimes hard-to-implement tweaks afterwards.

Some content management systems bake poor URL structures right into their websites. Lax rules can be a culprit, for example, not encoding spaces or special characters.
From an SEO point of view, a site’s URL structure should be:

Straightforward: URLs with duplicate content should have canonical URLs specified for them; there should be no confusing redirects on the site, etc.

Meaningful: URL names should have keywords in them, not gibbering numbers and punctuation marks.

With emphasis on the right URLs: SEO-wise, not all URLs on a site are of equal importance as a rule. Some even should be concealed from the search engines. At the same time, it is important to check that the pages that ought to be accessible to the search engines are actually open for crawling and indexing.

So, here is what one can do to achieve an SEO-friendly site URL structure:

1- Consolidate your www and the non-www domain versions

As a rule, there are two major versions of your domain indexed in the search engines, the www and the non-www version of it. These can be consolidated in more than one way, but I’d mention the most widely accepted practice.

Canonical issues, parameters that do not change page content, loose adherence to coding standards, or any number of reasons will create duplicate content.
Options for dealing with duplicate content include:
  • Reconfigure the content management platform to generate one consistent URL for each page of content.
  • 301 redirect duplicate URLs to the correct version.
  • Add canonical tags to webpages that direct search engines to group duplicate content and combine their ranking signals.
  • Configure URL parameters in webmaster tools and direct search engines to ignore any parameters that cause duplicate content (Configuration >> Settings >> Preferred Domain).

2- Avoid dynamic and relative URLs

Depending on your content management system, the URLs it generates may be “pretty” like this one:
or “ugly” like this one:

As I said earlier, search engines have no problem with either variant, but for certain reasons it’s better to use static (prettier) URLs rather than dynamic (uglier) ones. Thing is, static URLs contain your keywords and are more user-friendly, since one can figure out what the page is about just by looking at the static URL’s name.
Besides, Google recommends using hyphens (-) instead of underscores (_) in URL names, since a phrase in which the words are connected using underscores is treated by Google as one single word, e.g. one_single_word is onesingleword to Google.

And, to check what other elements of your page should have the same keywords as your URLs.
Besides, some web devs make use of relative URLs. The problem with relative URLs is that they are dependent on the context in which they occur. Once the context changes, the URL may not work. SEO-wise, it is better to use absolute URLs instead of relative ones, since the former are what search engines prefer.

Now, sometimes different parameters can be added to the URL for analytics tracking or other reasons (such as sid, utm, etc.) To make sure that these parameters don’t make the number of URLs with duplicate content grow over the top, you can do either of the following:
  • Ask Google to disregard certain URL parameters in Google Webmaster Tools in Configuration > URL Parameters.
  • See if your content management system allows you to solidify URLs with additional parameters with their shorter counterparts.
3- Avoid Mixed Case
URLs, in general, are 'case-sensitive' (with the exception of machine names). Mixed case URLs can be a source of duplicate content. These are not the same URLs,
The easiest way to deal with mixed case URLs is to have your website automatically rewrite all URLs to lower case. With this one change, you never have to worry if the search engines are dealing with it automatically or not.
Another great reason to rewrite all URLs to lower case is it will simplify any case sensitive SEO and analytics reports. That alone is pure gold.

4- Create an XML Sitemap

An XML Sitemap is not to be confused with the HTML sitemap. The former is for the search engines, while the latter is mostly designed for human users.
What is an XML Sitemap? In plain words, it’s a list of your site’s URLs that you submit to the search engines. This serves two purposes:
  1. This helps search engines find your site’s pages more easily;
  2. Search engines can use the Sitemap as a reference when choosing canonical URLs on your site.
The word “canonical” simply means “preferred” in this case. Picking a preferred (canonical) URL becomes necessary when search engines see duplicate pages on your site.
So, as they don’t want any duplicates in the search results, search engines use a special algorithm to identify duplicate pages and pick just one URL to represent the group in the search results. Other webpages just get filtered out.
Now, back to sitemaps … One of the criteria search engines may use to pick a canonical URL for the group of webpages is whether this URL is mentioned in the website’s Sitemap.
So, what webpages should be included into your sitemap, all of your site’s pages or not? In fact, for SEO-reasons, it’s recommended to include only the webpages you’d like to show up in search.

4. Close off irrelevant pages with robots.txt

There may be pages on your site that should be concealed from the search engines. These could be your “Terms and conditions” page, pages with sensitive information, etc. It’s better not to let these get indexed, since they usually don’t contain your target keywords and only dilute the semantic whole of your site.

The robotx.txt file contains instructions for the search engines as to what pages of your site should be ignored during the crawl. Such pages get a noindex attribute and do not show up in the search results.

Sometimes, however, unsavvy webmasters use noindex on the pages it should not be used. Hence, whenever you start doing SEO for a site, it is important to make sure that no pages that should be ranking in search have the noindex attribute.

Conclusion: Having SEO-friendly URL structure on a site means having the URL structure that helps the site rank higher in the search results. While, from the point of view of web development, a particular site’s architecture may seem crystal-clear and error-free, for an SEO manager this could mean missing on certain ranking opportunities.


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