Optimizing URLs for Your Website
Optimizing your URL structure may sound boring. However, doing so can provide you the one of the best “returns on investment” for your time spent in SEO. In addition, it creates a better user experience when a visitor looks at a URL and immediately knows the content of a page.
CAUTION: Before you change any URLs, be sure you have a plan of every URL you intend to change on a separate document. Ideally, you will only make the change once. Why? When you move a URL you must create a 301 redirect from the old page to the new, or visitors will receive an error when they attempt to access the old URL. In addition, you can lose backlinks if they are linked to a dead URL.
Ideally, you’ll create the plan with your website developer prior to building your website so you will not need to worry about moving URLs. If your site is already live, make sure you take extra steps necessary to ensure both visitors and search engines can locate your content.
In this chapter, you’re objective is to learn the importance of optimizing URLs and how to do so for best results.
Why is Optimizing URLs Important?
Brace yourself, we’re going to get into a little bit of theory. Stick with us.
Search Engine Perspective
The search engines will see a URL first before they see content on a page, so the URL is the first “impression” the search engine has of your site. In addition, unlike changing content, a URL stays consistent for the “long term.” Therefore, the words in your URL are more trustworthy than, for example, a sentence in your content which can change frequently.
A URL is also the first part of your website your visitors will see. When visitors hover over a link before clicking, they will be able to see where the link will take them. If you were going to buy a pair of red shoes online, which site would you trust more?
Option A: example.com/kavd832_?kjhasdv2217384mdj=asdvnmliuahemnsadf.
Option B: example.com/womans-red-shoes
Option B seems more trustworthy, even if the content of the page is exactly the same.
URLs are believed to be in the top 3 ranking factors on a website. (The other two factors are title tags and backlinks.) Placing your keyword in your URL tells the search engines about the content of your page.
If you have a page about red shoes but the URL is “example.com/womens-blue-hats,” you will have an uphill battle in ranking that page. Instead, if your page is about red shoes, your URL should reflect that content and read “example.com/womens-red-shoes,” etc.
When you are reviewing pages, using optimized URLs will help you to see what the page is about as opposed to opening each page and reading the content to find out. This will help you to stay organized and keep better track of the pages on your website.
Avoid “Stuffed” URLs
People know SEO via URLs is important. That’s why a lot of people started to abuse this fact by creating keyword-stuffed URLs. Have you ever seen a site like this?:
There are sites out there that look similar to this. From a purely algorithmic standpoint, this domain would have more relevancy than one that looks more realistic.
Guess what? Search engines have already figured out these tricks.
In response, search engines began to institute “over-optimization penalties.” These penalties make it difficult for domains stuffed with keywords to rank.
This is both good news and bad news for business owners. The good news? You don’t have to worry about creating keyword-stuffed URLs to rank. The bad news? If the business owner is not careful, they can trip the same penalty!
We’ll discuss this in more detail later in the post.
Domain URLs vs. Sub-Folder vs. Sub-Domain
There are a few different parts to a URL: the domain, the sub domain and the sub-folder.
Parts of a URL
For this example we will use our website and the “About Us” page. Look at the following URL:
Let’s break it down.
http://: This portion needs to be on every website, so we will leave it as is.
www.: This is referred to as the sub-domain. Most websites simply use “www” but you can use literally anything. Some sites will have their blog as a sub-domain, for example “blog.orangefox.com”; some sites that have a variety of locations will use a sub-domain for each location, for example “california.orangefox.com.” Search engines consider these to be almost entirely different websites, so this can be a great way to separate different topics. The downside is it requires a new installation of WordPress and essentially creates a new site to be managed. (Most businesses do not consider this to be worth the time and energy on a sub-domain, so we won’t dive deeper into this topic.)
orangefox.com: This is the domain. For obvious reasons this cannot be changed once you have a site up, unless you want to move your entire site. It can be helpful to have your keyword in your domain. However, we do not recommend having an exact match domain, such as “buyrednikeshoes.com.”
Exact match domains are negative for two reasons. First, they can discourage certain buyers. Second, they can trip over-optimization penalties.
Instead, we recommend using a branded URL (i.e. orangefox.com) or a partial match domain that is branded (i.e. aaronshatstore.com). More than likely you already have a domain, so let’s keep moving!
/about/: This is the sub-folder, more commonly referred to as a page on a website. This is the part over which you have the most control and is easiest to change. If you’ve properly set up your permalinks (see this post if you haven’t already), you most likely have a slightly optimized URL. WordPress will use the title of the post to create the URL and will automatically add dashes between words.
Since the sub-folder is the easiest to modify, that’s what we’ll focus on below.
Optimizing the Sub-Folder
There are three parts to optimizing the sub-folder: adding keywords, avoiding over-optimization, and creating redirects. All three of elements need to be planned out before making any changes.
As previously discussed, you want to be sure your keywords are in the URL of the pages you are attempting to rank. You do not need to have your keyword on every page, only pages that are relevant to that keyword. For example, your “About Us” page does not need any keywords in the URL.
The pages that you are working to rank should have a keyword in the URL.
In the example above, creating a page to rank for red Nikes would look like this:
The page at “/nike” would be about Nike shoes. The page at “/nike/red” would be the page working to rank for red Nikes.
Here’s another example. A site about plumbing may look like one of these options:
The “/chicago” page would be the page attempting to rank for the term “Chicago plumbing.” The “/toilet-repair” page would be the page attempting to rank for “toilet repair in Chicago.” The more targeted a page is, the easier it is to rank.
The more people try to trick the search engines, the more important it will become to avoid over-optimization. Currently, over-optimization penalties occur more in certain niches than others. However, we recommend doing things the correct way now to avoid issues in the future.
Avoid Writing Stuffed URLs
Stuffing keywords in to a URL can lead to over-optimization penalties. In the past many SEOs would setup the URL like this:
Besides the fact that this URL is ugly to visitors, it is a clear attempt at manipulating search engines.
To avoid over-optimization we recommend not using the same keyword in your URL more than once. (Unfortunately, this can be difficult on certain sites and maybe even unavoidable.)
Writing for Exact Match Domains
You can see how over-optimization is difficult with an exact match domain (or EMD). This is why we recommend having only a partial match domain.
If you already have an EMD, we encourage you to use synonyms for URLs.
For example, instead of this: chicagoplumbing.com/plumber
Try this: chicagoplumbing.com/services
Writing for Partial Match Domains
For partial match domains it is a little easier to write URLs, but you need to be careful, too.
For example, instead of this: aaronsplumbing.com/chicago-plumbing
Try this: aaronsplumbing.com/chicago
The benefits? You have both the “Chicago” and “plumbing” keywords in the URL, but they are not overused.
Writing for Branded URLs
For sites with a branded URL, you have more leeway, but the same logic applies.
We would recommend one of the following:
This may take some time to figure out which URL to use, but it’s a simple task that helps to optimize your site.
Finally, you’ll want to create redirects. This is an important step to take any time you move a page, so that both search engines and visitors know where to find the page.
WordPress typically updates your menus with proper URLs, but if you have links within your content they will need to be manually updated. If you only have a few pages, you can probably find them manually, but with a larger site you’ll probably need to use a tool to find all of them.
Finally, you’ll want to make sure links from other sites point to the correct page. In a perfect world, you could contact the webmaster and ask them to update the link. However, this typically does not work. In those circumstances, your best bet is to create a 301 redirect to the new page. The easiest way to do this is to use a plugin like “Redirection.” We’ve created a post about how to do this that you can read here.
You’ve met your objective of learning the importance of optimizing URLs and how to do so for best results.
Setting up proper URLs is one of the most effective changes you can make to your website. Although it may sound intimidating, once you go through it on 1 or 2 pages you’ll find it’s not too difficult.
Going forward, you will want to consider writing URLs as you create content. Remember to keep a good balance between making them for the visitors and for the search engines (especially as these are quickly becoming one and the same)!
Lastly always remember to create a backup before making changes to your website. In the even of an issue you’ll be thankful… trust us on this one!