Understanding the structure of domain names and URLs is a fundamental building block of SEO. Over the years, Google and Bing have come a long way in handling the challenges of a growing number of pages available for indexing. The basic rule of SEO URLs is to make it easy for the searching human to understand the page content, and in doing so you make it easier for the search engine itself to understand your website.
What is a URL and why do we use it?
URL is known to most of the world as your website address. The Uniform Resource Locator (URL), without getting too technical, is the NAME given to the web address (IP Address) and folder location of your website files on a webserver. The NAME of your site can point to anywhere on the web (webserver), with permission.
A web server (computer) is given a physical location or IP Address. This IP address tends to look like this: 126.96.36.199. This is not unlike a street address of a home or business. ### Lincoln Ave, Denver, CO 80112. If SeeMe Media, our company, was located at this address, you would just call the building at that address SeeMe Media. That is exactly what it is like to have a URL name point to a server address.
If SeeMe Media were to move its physical address from one address to another, we would still call the business SeeMe Media, even at the new address. So, if we were to change where we point our URL (CNAME) from one server to another, the IP Address would change but not the URL, and people would still be able to find us through the URL.
URL also refers to the entire URL to a web page and not just your domain. The following are examples of URLs.
Tips for Setting Up URLs
Use a single domain or subdomain
Focus your similar content on one domain. Pick either a URL with www or not, but whatever you do stick with your decision. All of the links within your site, and of those coming to your site from backlinks, should point to 1 version of your domain to get the best domain authority results.
In some cases, you may want to use a subdomain for new content. A subdomain is a change to your URL base, usually replacing the www. Google and Bing treat subdomains as completely new URLs and not part of your main domain. It is like a guest house on a property, not really the main home, but lightly associated. Subfolders are viewed as rooms within the main house and therefore part of the main site.
In most cases, placing the content in a subfolder vs a subdomain will help your domain authority more. Subfolders are viewed as part of a website, where subdomains are looked at entirely new domains.
https://articles.seeme-media.com (Domain Authority not passed along to the articles)
https://www.seeme-media.com/articles/ (Domain Authority passed along to the articles)
The more readable by human beings, the better
If you did a search for “why does mom always sit in the front seat?”, and the results came up with Google with these two URLs available to click on, which of the following URLs would you visit first?
Both of these links go to the same page, but one is more people-friendly than the other. Human readable links are very valuable in emails, social media links, and other places you want to share pages on the web with others.
The ability for humans to read and pass on URLs makes them better for users and therefore search engines. There are needs today however for pages to use advanced user and data signals in URLs. These tracking codes are appended to the base URLs you make and may make URL’s harder read. If you can get your basic information into the URL before this tracking information you are still using best practice for passing along good information to your human visitors.
Shorter is better
Shorter URLs are generally preferable. Anything under 60 characters is really no big deal, but if you are pushing up to 100+ characters for the pages you want to be found, you have a good opportunity to improve your SERP rankings by rewriting those URLs to make them more human-readable. This really has nothing to do with search engines. They can handle any size URL, and most any combination of characters. Shorter URLs are helpful for your visitors. They are easier to copy and paste and to share. When they are shared, those seeing the URLs are more likely to click on links that seem more readable.
Match URLs to titles
Matching your URL to your page titles helps human searchers to get an idea of what your site has in store for them. They don’t have to be identical but close. Also, this is not a set rule. When possible to do this, it is a good idea, but if titles are just too long, shortening them can be good. The goal here is to set an expectation with the site visit and to fulfill that expectation when they get to your page.
If your title/headline includes stop words (and, or, but, of, the, a, etc.), it’s not critical to put them in the URL. You don’t have to leave them out, either, but it can sometimes help to make a URL shorter and more readable in some sharing contexts.
Hyphens and underscores are preferred word separators in URLs
Using hyphens and underscores are preferable to replace a space in URLs. Most CMSs will turn a space into the "%20" ascii code and will make it harder to read your URL. When you are creating your Page Title or URL, most CMSs will now convert your title text into a URL with hyphens automatically.
Use Focus Keywords in your URLs
Using focus keywords in your URL makes it easier for the human eyes, that see your URL on Social Media or in an email, to understand what you are linking them to. Many URLs are copied and pasted by users when shared as well. Giving people peace-of-mind that what you are linking them to, through keyword usage in the URL, will make your site links more reliable to the user.
Then there is the big one, URLs are shown in search results on Google and Bing. This means people look at not only the title and the meta description provided in the search results but also at the URL. This makes the URL one of the top three elements searchers consider when deciding where to click. Make your URLs readable and valuable to the searchers to get more clicks when you do come up in search.
Caution here; don’t keyword stuff your URLs. People and search engines are smart enough to figure out when you are just stuffing repetitive keywords into a URL. If you would notice it, so will someone else. Use your best judgment here for better results. If you are trying to game the system, the system is smart enough to know that. Just don't do it.
Limit your page depth
Page Depth refers to the number of perceived folders (/) are present to get to your page. This is another area that is about keeping your URL simple and short if you create a URL that looks like this:
But Could have done the same with:
Which is easier for the user? Remember this is all about making things easier for the human searcher. When things are easy for human searchers, you are rewarded in the SERP. There is no requirement here, you can leave the long URLs, but use your best judgment to make it easy on your searchers.
In 2018, Google stated that the number of folders doesn’t actually affect rankings, but the page depth (how many clicks to get to a page from the home page) does. The bottom line, key ranking content should be easy to get to from your homepage.
Avoid duplication through the use of Canonicalization
Canonicalization is a way to create an optimized website that uses a single piece of writing that appears in multiple locations on one website. Remember any change in your URL is looked at as a new page to a search engine and sitemap without specific instructions.
For example, these two pages are identical content but would be indexed separately:
Search engines need to know which version of the page is the most valuable to searchers. Search engines do not want to show multiple pieces of the same content to a user in search results for the same site. For you to help search engines produce the best results for searches you want to tell the search engines which version of the content is the best for them to show.
You have two options here. If the content is truly a duplicate, you can use a 301 redirect on the page that does not need to be shown, to forever redirect the content searcher to the correct page. The other is to utilize the tag “rel=canonical” in the header of the page.
Another good reason to use canonicalization on pages is for measuring traffic. By sending traffic to two separate URLs on a site with similar content you are breaking up your analytic counts. If you can point all your traffic to one page you will see more accurate numbers for your content.
Be sure to redirect URLs that are changed
The setup of your site's URLs should be taken up as soon as possible during a web build or rebuild. If you are going to change any URLs after they have been indexed by a search engine you will need to be prepared to create a 301 redirect from the old URL to the new URL to avoid any 404 Error pages coming up for your visitors. There are a few bulk loading 301 redirect plugins in WordPress that can help you with this task if you are changing a large number of URLs at once.
Your URL is your first advert to those visiting your site. Put your best foot forward and hopefully, the clicks will be coming through in no time.