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April 18, 2018   |   4 min read

3 Ways to Format Your URLs for Search Engines and Users

What does it mean to have SEO-friendly URLs?

At a high level, this means URLs that are simple and easy-to-follow. And because URLs help set a website’s hierarchy and navigate users to their desired destinations, they should be. Remember, users don’t want to work harder than they have to, and frankly, neither do search engines. With billions of pages out there to crawl, well-organized URLs make it easier for Google to find and index your content.

However, the process of arriving at well-structured URLs is not always so simple. That’s because there is no hard and fast approach that should be applied across all sites. Rather, there are a handful of best practices to consider in the name of good SEO as well as UX. To help get you started, here are answers to three common questions about formatting URLs for search engines and users:



Should keywords be used in URLS?

While placement of keywords in URLs is not a core ranking factor, it is still a good idea to include them. Why? Because URLs should closely mirror the title of a webpage, and keywords within page titles are strong ranking factors. Basically, this means that keywords should end up within URLs rather naturally. See the fictional example below:

Blog-Post-Page-Title-and-URL-Example
The page name appended to the end of the URL closely matches the page title of the blog post.

In non-blog cases, it can get a bit trickier. Let’s use a fictional product page as an example: Green Soft Shell Spring Jackets for Women. In this case, the product page may be housed under several sub-folders to help navigate users:

Homepage

        Women’s Jackets  

                Women’s Spring Jackets

                        Women’s Spring Soft Shell Jackets

                                Women’s Spring Soft Shell Jackets in Green

Notice how many times the terms “women’s jackets” and “spring jackets” are used? If the above were translated directly into a URL, it would be neither clean nor clear:

Overly-long-URL-Example-1
In this example the URL is stuffed full of keywords, leading to redundant terms that make it hard to read.

Even in the second example below, where the URL has been noticeably shortened, it is still not as SEO or user-friendly as possible. “Jackets” is just used too many times!

Overly-long-URL-Example-2
While shorter than the previous example, this URL is still too redundant.

So, the question now becomes: how do we craft URLs that reflect the title of a page and show off the site’s hierarchy without stretching to China? If your full URL includes key terms found on the destination page, that will suffice. Strategically pick and choose where they appear. In this example, key terms would include:

  • Women’s jackets
  • Spring jackets
  • Soft shell
  • Green
Clear-URL-Example
"Jackets" has been incorporated but has not been carried throughout the entire URL.

As a final thought about keywords in URLs, always be sure to structure them using WORDS. Strings of numbers should NOT be appended to the ends of URLs – this practice is neither SEO nor user-friendly.

Example-of-URL-with-a-number-string
"productID=12345678?" What does that have to do with soft shell spring jackets?!


Hyphens (-) vs. underscores (_) in URLs?

Hyphens, please! Learn why:

  • Google prefers them over underscores.
  • Typically, they are easier for users to read. Happy users = happy search engines.
  • Google treats hyphens as word separators, equating them with traditional “spaces.”
  • On the other hand, Google views underscores as word joiners, meaning that /best_spring_jackets_april_2018 ends up looking like /bestspringjacketsapril2018 to search engines. No thank you.

In a similar vein, words should be separated by a hyphen rather than by actual spaces or no spaces at all. Spaces show up as %20, while no spaces lead to one long run-on URL – neither of which are easy to read.

Punctuation-in-URLs
These URLs lead to the same page, creating duplicate content.


Upper-case vs. lower-case in URLS?

Lower-case, all the way! The reason? A mix of upper- and lower-case letters can make URLs messy and hard to read.

Because a readable URL is an SEO-friendly URL, simplify your format by making all letters lower-case.

In many instances, websites (often unknowingly) generate multiple versions of a URL to account for both upper- and lower-case versions:

Upper-and-lower-case-URLs_180418_094904
These URLs lead to the same page, creating duplicate content.

This leads to duplicate content, which splits the value and ranking power of a page in half. When value is split, it becomes harder for either version of the page to rank well organically.

In a situation like this, it’s an SEO best practice to either implement a canonical tag pointing to the preferred lower-case version of the URL, or permanently redirect the upper-case version to the lower-case page. This will help focus most of the ranking power back onto a single page.



Ready. Set. Format!

A site redesign presents a great opportunity to re-evaluate and structure URLs to be more SEO and user-friendly. But no matter the reason, follow these SEO best practices so that your end-result leads to URLs that are:

  • Descriptive of their page topics
  • As concise as possible
  • Clean and easy-to-read

Oh, one more thing. As you re-format existing URLs, please remember to redirect!

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