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SEO Friendly URLs – Backed by Research

Creating SEO friendly URLs is pretty daunting. Compressing the content of a large post into a few words WITHOUT including slug words and taking other aspects into consideration is a challenge. Here’s how you can make it easier.

Introduction

Building SEO friendly URLs appears to be easy.

It is NOT. Read on to optimise them and increase your page views and leads by a significant margin.

We users navigate to web pages by clicking on or typing in the URLs of web pages.

Today, they are ubiqutuous. Wherever you look – all the links that you see and click are all URLs.

As with content, URLs can also be optimised. And they are to an insane amount. There is a lot of science and psychology that goes behind choosing one URL over another.

anatomy of SEO friendly URLs
This is how a URL looks like in your browser. Note the word slug – that is what we have full control of.

The question – how to optimise URLs to be SEO friendly so that users at least reach the page that has been created for a marketing purpose.

In this guide, you will learn what URLs are, how they can be optimised for search engines and users, what the established players in the digital marketing world say about them and how to YOU can make better URLs yourself.

I have already covered primary research done by reknowned marketing agencies like Moz, Search Engine Journal, backlinko, and so on so that you don’t have to.

Let us begin.

What are URLs? What do you mean by SEO friendly URLs?

A URL also known as a web address is a reference to the web resource specifying its location on a network and provides for a mechanism to retrieve it.

Usually, a string value, URLs allow regular users to reach websites without having to type the full server addresses identifying the remote locations. DNS takes care of resolving the strings to the remote addresses.

We will not go into that. Browsers automatically interpret clickable anchor tags with URLs in them as links.

search results showing urls
This shows how the URLs look like in the search results. The above results are from the search query ‘CSS3 improves SEO’.

What matters to us is that the link in the form of string (text) is enough for us to reach a web page. Anybody with the link anywhere on the Internet should uniformly be able to reach the end page and display it in their browser.

You get how relevant URLs are to search engines then.

Anytime you do a search query, you end up reaching a search results page (unless you have clicked on ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’). There you see links to different websites. The link that you see shows the URLs for each of the pages.

0th results may hide the link in some cases.
This is a rarer scenario. When the search result come up as a 0th result – the URL is shown ONLY if it is short. Otherwise it shows only the navigation. You CAN see the URL too, without clicking IF you hover your mouse over the link. This works on desktops only!

Everyday when we search for what we want, we already filter out information based on several parameters. This comes naturally to us.

But if you take a backseat and analyse how you decide you will make some of the below observations.

There are various factors that decide our behavior.

  1. Most often the first result is the one that we pick. Currently they may even be number 0 result. That means you get a snippet view of what’s in the post on the search results page itself.
  2. Many a times, we skip the first link. We look at the meta description, the title tag that speaks about relevance.
  3. We check for the authority of the website in question.
  4. At times we may click a link that seems attractive to us as it implies some benefit or action that we can do ourselves and fast.

As promised, let me summarise what the leading authorities on this topic say about making SEO friendly URLs.

Literature Survey

This will be divided into several sites – each of these may include points that are redundant. Those can be considered as reinforcing the points.

I will explain each with examples and in the end we will be able to come up with a conclusion and summarize the points. If you wish to get straight to the results, you can do that by clicking here.

Common Places

Common Places does a great job summing up all the points and I would rate it as the second best article I have read on this subject (before publishing this).

basic dos for seo friendly urls
This sets the tone for building the right URLs that help BOTH the user and the search engines (that also AIM to help the same user)
  1. Content description is essential – What they are saying is that the keywords should give an indication of what the page or post is about. That makes sense and is kind of intuitive. But there is the case where you may have the urge to stuff irrelevant keywords just so it ranks. It won’t work in the long run. The URL is what the user sees the first time in search results. Make it count. Give the user exactly what he/she can expect from reading the post.
  2. Include keywords in the URL – Keywords in the URL is also another factor that points to the relevance of the page for the given search query. It also stresses the importance of positioning important keywords in the beginning of the URL.
  3. Use hyphens to separate words instead of using underscores – Because this is what Google recommends itself.
  4. Use of Lowercase letters in URL – This is a throwback to the days when Windows and UNIX servers treated URLs differently. They still do today and the general trend is to ensure all URLs are of the same case. Since UNIX does not make a distinction on case, URLs traditionally tend to have the lower case. That way there are no compatibility issues. Note that most servers in the world are Linux (Unix) based.
  5. Keep URLs short and simple – Again, this is a direct recommendation from Google itself. The examples are also contained in the original post.
  6. Static URLs are ideal – There are two reasons for this. Static URLs are easier for the search bots to crawl. That means fewer errors due to crawling. The other reason is that static URLs are just much more easier to read.
  7. Avoid subdomain if possible – Sub domains are considered as a separate entity for search engines. So, their domain authority will be different from that of your parent domain. So, it is best to stick to sub folders instead of sub domains.
  8. A Flat file structure works best – This is a corollary to the above point 7. Only that the folder structure itself need not be a part of the URL itself. How you structure this actually depends on you. In our experiements the difference has come down to be far too insignificant to be mentioned. But I will mention this point nonetheless.
static urls are always preferable
Dynamic URLs make crawling difficult. Plus you don’t often know what to expect!

The Search Engine Journal

The Search Engine Journal explains similar points as above on these URLs. I will list them down below.

  1. Keywords in URLs – This is nothing new.
  2. Meaningful structure – This is similar to the point for relevant content but further expands it. For example, you have a category tag of ‘SEO’ and under that you create posts related to SEO. The URL can be structured in such a way that it includes the category along with the slug of the page itself. This is often also highlighted in the search result itself and be an additional incentive to improve your CTR.
  3. Superfluous words are to be avoided – This includes stop words. The idea is to keep the URLs short and simple. It makes sense because longer URLs will not really be shown in the search results and be replaced with the dreaded ‘…’ abbrevitation. That’s not a great way of ensuring clicks.
  4. Minimize Dyanmic strings in URLs – This is exactly the same as above.
  5. Consolidation of various versions of your website – You can fix this with the rel=canonical tag. This is not a major issue as most Content Management Systems will already fix this for you. Otherwise, use a 301 redirect to ensure that www and non www sites point to one single version of your page. This helps the crawler and avoids the risk of content duplication.
  6. Canonical tags to be used properly – This is a repetition of the previous point.
  7. Have Topical Authority – Creating categorisation of pages under some category may help. I am not convinced about this to be honest. There are conflicting reports about this. So I will mark this as unverified.
  8. Create an XML Sitemap – This actually has got nothing to do with creating SEO friendly URLs but deals with maintaining good search presence.
use canonical tags to avoid duplication of content
Use Canonical tags to avoid duplication of content. Yoast (mentioned below) will help.

For the next items in the list, I will only mention points that reveal something new or contradicts any of the points already made above.

Create redirects while changing URLs
Use a 301 redirect to point the old link to the new one. Search engines displaying your old link will still point users to the correct page. Most CMS like WordPress will do this automatically for you. Otherwise, you can use a 301 Redirect Plugin.

Backlinko

Backlinko has been my go to guide for a few months now. Their in depth posts and first rate original research make them stand out.

Here’s their take on making SEO friendly URLs. As mentioned before, I have only kept points that have already not been mentioned before.

  1. Keep a focus on Improving CTR – This is more of a recommendation and is an optimisation tip for writing better URLs and headlines. I have also covered how to write great headlinesbefore here. It was for landing pages, but the concepts are still the same.
  2. Avoid using dates – while this is similar to the post above where simple URL structures are to be used, this deserves a mention. There are two major reasons why dates should almost never be used as part of your URL structure. One, they tend to restrict your url relevance to a time period while what you want is evergreen content. The other point is that the url length increases without adding any relevance. The shorter the URL the easier it is for anyone to see (even on smaller screens). In any case Google will trim any url to ‘…’ after 512 px.
avoid dates categories in SEO friendly URLs
Avoid dates in the URLs. It takes up your valuable real estate for no benefit.

Finally let’s have a look at Neil Patel’s guide on writing SEO friendly URLs.

Neil Patel on SEO Friendly URLs

Neil Patel makes a note of a few new points.

By this time we actually have covered most, so there is really nothing much that anybody can add. But here it is.

  1. Avoid using Stop Words. Keep URLs short and avoid these. Here’s a full list of stop words that you can do best without.
    Are these harmful for SEO?
    Not really, as this research suggests. But don’t overdo them.
  2. Keep a maximum of two folders in the URL structure. I prefer to keep none or one, but that’s me. I get more space to write a meaningful url that is easy to read. Categories or sub folders may make navigation easier if you design your site structure that way. But this can be logically done as well.
  3. Focus on the User experience – This is a summing up type of a point and while the examples drive home the point – going into too much detail is no longer necessary. You are already well equipped with the information needed to make an informed choice now.

Now we can arrive at a pretty good conclusion for ourselves that just works.

How to make SEO Friendly URLs

I will list the objective of each point along with how you can do it. Both will be brief so that following it or printing this out is easy.

  1. Create super relevant URLs. These should have the below ingredients.
    • The primary keyword of the post should be in the URL.
    • There should be no stop words in the URL.
    • It should make sense. Reading it should give the reader a sense of what to expect.
    • It should be short. There is no need for any slug to be more than 5 or 6 words.
    • Words should be separated by dashes and nothing else
    • No special characters other than dash should be used
  2. Folder structure for URLs should be as simple as possible. Even flat file structure is good enough. The sub folders ONLY help in navigation of the user. This may help in user experience and having some realignment of content is fine. But major breadcrumbing is counter intuititve and confusing for search engines. Besides, it gets difficult to read and it reduces the length for the slug that is available to you.
  3. Avoid sub domains EVERYWHERE. If you are creating a sub domain, understand that it is the same as creating a new website altogether. Skip this and go for a folder structure instead. Or even go flat. Don’t use a sub domain for parking content if you want it to rank.
  4. No dates should be present in URLs anywhere. Dates make posts contextual to a specific time period. If you have to do something like that ensure it is a part of the slug itself and not a folder structure. That way you can quickly update your post and slug when the appropriate time comes.
  5. Create static links wherever possible. Create landing pages if you want to incorporate, show and share something with the world. I have covered how you can create great landing pages here. Dyanamic links will be hard for search engines to crawl and regular users will never know what to expect.
  6. Use Canonical tags when linking to pages of the same content. This may be necessary if you are connecting www and non www versions of your site. Your site administrator should be able to do this easily. Most Content Management Systems take care of this automatically but still needs to be mentioned.
  7. Have a good sitemap. This online sitemap generator will do the job for you. If you are WordPress user, there is a plugin they have for it too. This makes it easier for search engines to crawl your page. At the same time, create a decent HTML sitemap as well. This is ONLY for the users. These can be consider link roundups where interesting content across your site (and other similar sites in your niche) can be gathered and featured on a single page for easy access.
  8. Have a secure website. This is not directly related to the appropriate phrases or keywords and so on. But secure sites are often preferred and act as a tie braker in many cases. You can go for a free SSL certificate to begin with.
SEO friendly URL sitemap and structure
A simple structure should help. At most pages can be 2 folders deep. Any more and your URL will not even be visible in Google Search results.

Yoast as a solution

Yoast will take care of most of the recommendations above.

yoast plugin
Yoast is the recommended option for all SEO needs. You don’t need any other.

It is available as a free plugin (with paid addons) for WordPress and a few other Content Management Systems.

You will still have to manually make the choice of the words to make SEO friendly URLs.

set canonical tags for any post in WordPress
WordPress: Set the canonical url here and the duplication issues will be resolved.
yoast recommendations include a check for urls and slugs
Yoast does a basic check for SEO title width and more importantly for URLS – the presence of the keyword/s in the slug

But including keywords and the size of the URLs are highlighted by the plugin itself.

Conclusion

Google has published a very detailed guideline on ‘Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines’. This is probably as close they have come to actually disclosing their secret sauce.

Writing SEO friendly URLs may feel like compressing the content of a page or a post into a single phrase of a few words. But with the above guidelines and the tips that we mined from other authority websites above should give you an indication of what to aim for.

It takes time. Writing great URLs that deliver the message of ‘I am relevant and a perfect fit for your search needs’ is NOT easy. But with time, you should be able to master this.

Stay tuned to this space for any updates on this topic. Rest assured, this is a cornerstone post and hence will see regular updates.

So let me know what you think about this post and which tips do you find interesting down in the comments below. Let us have a dialogue and discuss if I missed anything that you have come across in the meantime.

Good luck!


By Sarthak Ganguly

A programming aficionado, Sarthak spends most of his time programming or computing. He has been programming since his sixth grade. Now he has two websites in his name and is busy writing two books. Apart from programming, he likes reading books, hanging out with friends, watching movies and planning wartime strategies.

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