URL Structure for SEO (aka How to Make SEO-Friendly URLs)
Getting your URL structure right for users and Google is essential for SEO.
URLs are the building blocks of an effective site structure. They pass link equity through your domain and direct users around your site.
Want to know how to make URLs for your website that are SEO friendly?
We wrote this guide to get you started optimizing your URL structure for better user experience and rankings.
What Are URLs?
URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator. It refers to the digital address for web pages on the internet.
When you open a web browser and access a website, the servers and browsers involved use URLs to access the specific page you selected.
As Will is kindly demonstrating below, here is what your basic URL looks like:
Resources can also include media links and files that can be accessed through a website.
There is a lot of technicality involved with URLs, but for the sake of SEO what you really need to know about is the structure.
What does an SEO friendly URL structure look like?
Getting your URL structure right for users in Google search is essential for search engine optimization. Everyone knows a URL should be in lowercase, use hyphens and obviously contain a domain name.
But for webmasters wanting to step up their digital marketing game, there’s a few things you need to know.
An SEO friendly URL structure consists of the following:
Here’s an annotated example of the URL structure from our plumbing citation list page and how we’ve optimized it:
When it comes to SEO, the sections you will be optimizing the most are the permalink and to a lesser extent the slug.
Why Are URLs Important for SEO?
URLs are a pretty minor ranking factor, and there is some argument if it’s even important at all.
The truth is, a lot of the importance of URLs as ranking signals comes indirectly.
Let’s take a look at each of these:
URLs + user experience
A well optimized URL can have a positive effect on the overall user experience of your website in the SERPs.
Along with the title of the page (or title tag), they help explain what each page is about in the SERPs:
People are more likely to click on a URL that is optimized vs one that isn’t.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say these two pages each cover the same information — which one would you click on?
My guess is the first one because it’s readability is just better (aka it clearly shows the target keyword of the page).
URLs are also an important part of how your website is structured, which has an even greater impact on the user experience of your site.
URLs + search rankings
As we mentioned above, URLs on their own are a minor ranking factor.
More specifically, when you include the main keyword that a page focuses on in the URL that can help improve your rankings.
In fact, studies have shown that short URLs rank above long URLs.
The reason is because it helps send a stronger signal to search engines about what the topical focus of a page is.
Google will look at the two URL examples above, and just like human beings, it will more quickly understands what the first page is about (vs the more confusing URL structure of the second).
URLs + link building and social sharing
The final reason why URLs are important for SEO is how they impact your link building and social sharing.
When you have a page that has a user friendly URL, people can see what the page is about.
Therefore, you are more likely to land contextual backlinks and/or get shared on social media.
Another thing to remember is that sometimes people link to your page and use the URL itself as the anchor text. That’s not ideal, but if you included a keyword in the URL that helps your site’s ranking for that keyword.
How Does URL Structure Affect Your Rankings?
Let’s look into how URLs affect your search rankings in more depth.
Take a quick look at Google Webmaster’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, and you’ll see that Google says this about URLs:
Creating descriptive categories and filenames for the documents on your website not only helps you keep your site better organized, it can create easier, “friendlier” URLs
Optimising URLs to make Google happy for SEO
If you want your URLs to be optimized so they positively affect your rankings, you need to keep the following in mind:
- Include the main keyword your page focuses on when relevant (NOT your home page)
- Only use valid characters (numbers, letters and dashes between words)
- Make the URL describe the content of the page
- Make the URL unique so it isn’t the exact same, and avoid making it too similar to others
That last point is key.
Google does not like duplicate content, and you can accidentally give them a negative signal if you have pages with very similar URLs. This can be a problem for eCommerce websites that have dynamic URLs for products using hierarchy or categories.
Even if each of those pages covers different elements of the mediterranean diet, how are users or search engines supposed to know that?
This goes back to the golden rule for content, which is to make each page have a unique focus and information.
Don’t have the same content on different URLs.
Static URLs vs. Dynamic URLs
There are two types of URLs you can make.
- Static URLs: where you have to specifically write what you want the URL to be. It doesn’t change under any circumstance.
- Dynamic URLs: which you can set according to information pulled from a database to dynamically update a URL.
Here’s Spiderman (Spidermen?) with a useful example:
Any website that includes filters, URL hierarchy, or tags likely use dynamic URLs.
When you change the filters or update the hierarchy or tags, the URL changes automatically.
Online stores have this a lot when people filter product searches according to brand, size, color, cost, and so on.
How Canonical URLs Can Save You a Big Headache
If you have an eCommerce website, or have any dynamic URLs for any reason, the last thing you want is to have all the possible URLs indexed by search engines.
When that happens, they become static according to the search engine. That can cause havoc for your SEO and user experience.
The best thing to do is set canonical URLs.
This groups together categories of your pages or makes all product pages, of any filter variation, point to the same URL for search engines to index.
That helps you avoid issues with duplication or non-friendly URLs.
URLS for Subdomains vs. Subfolders
One thing to keep in mind is how to create URL structure to match your website outline.
Oh, and don’t worry, we are not going to start up the whole SEO debate about subdomains vs subfolders yet again.
Understanding the difference in site architecture is useful though:
It is very common to create subfolders that match your main website categories.
If you have a website for general health and wellness, you can create subfolders that categorizes your content in those sorts of groups.
Most of the time, that works just fine. But sometimes it makes more sense to use subdomains.
For example, let’s say you have a website with lots of pages dedicated to products and/or services that you sell.
If you want to have a blog, it might not make sense to create a new /blog/ subfolder. This is especially true if you want to create topic clusters within the blog itself.
So what you can do in this case is make a subdomain for the blog, so the URL becomes blog.example.com.
Using subdomains is definitely a more complicated option. You can stick with subfolders unless you have a very large and complex website.
What Is the Best URL Structure to Use?
If you want to know what URL structure in SEO would work best for your site, it depends on what kind of website you have.
Here are the two types of websites that would work best with different URL structures:
Small Sites, Local SEO & WordPress
Small websites, websites for a business with multiple locations, and WordPress websites are easier to manage.
You can map out your website structure according to topical groups, then create URL subfolders to match.
When you have multiple locations, you can create separate pages with their own URLs for each. It helps you have pages ranking for their city or region, which is a key part of local SEO.
If you’re making a new WordPress website, you can set it up so that the URLs do not have the unnecessary and confusing identifier code included. Older websites on WordPress had it, but there was no choice.
If you have an older website on WordPress and don’t have too many pages, you should look into updating the URLs to look cleaner. You can then set up 301 redirects from the old URLs to the new ones.
Websites that are eCommerce have a much more difficult time with URLs. This is especially true for eCommerce sites that also have blogs, articles, service pages, and so on. We covered the main reasons why above.
The good news is that it isn’t too difficult to manage this. The first thing you can do is create subdirectory folders for each section of your website. Here is a simplified version of what that can look like:
This helps you organize your pages into groups that are easier to manage. It helps your users find what they’re looking for easier, and helps search engines better understand your site.
5 URL Structure Mistakes (You NEED) to Avoid
Knowing the best practices is one thing, but it’s also important to know what mistakes to avoid.
These can even be well-meaning mistakes where you think you’re following the best practices.
Let’s check them out in more detail:
1. Don’t use special characters
Do not use any special characters in your URLs.
This includes things like question marks, ampersands, plus signs, and so on.
Some characters have specific technical purposes, and if you try and include them in the URL it will cause problems.
Do not use underscores in your URLs.
If you’re going to separate words, use dashes.
Don’t do this: www.example.com/product_page/
Do this: www.example.com/product-page/
2. Avoid using too many subdirectories or categories
Having URL subdirectories or subcategories are a great way to organize your site.
But you lose the benefits when you go overboard and create too many. You don’t need dozens or hundreds of variations, even for an eCommerce site.
Keep things simple and logical, according to what your users would actually search for. When you get too granular you actually make the user experience worse.
3. Don’t keep everything in the same root domain
This is the other side of that coin.
You might hear that it’s better to keep URLs shorter — which is not always true — and then achieve that by cutting out subdirectories or categories. You can do fine with this if you have a small website with a handful of pages.
But anything more than that and you will find it very difficult to organize your content. You also make it more difficult for your readers and search engines to navigate or understand your website structure.
4. Don’t forget to use keywords
We’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Always include at least the main keyword that describes the topical focus of the page.
You can get away with including more than one, as long as it’s relevant and makes sense semantically.
Just make sure you don’t repeat the same keywords on multiple pages. That’s where you can run into the issue with duplicates and your pages could look spammy with near identical URLs.
5. Avoid keyword stuffing a URL
However, just like with subdirectories and categories there is such a thing as using too many keywords in a URL. The last thing you should do is stuff a URL with as many keywords as you can think of.
This is no ideal URL length really, but shorter URLs that are keyword-rich are easier on the eye.
That type of thing tends to look unnatural, and ruins the user experience. It’s also something that Google frowns at, and can wind up hurting your rankings rather than helping.
With these best and worst practices, you will be able to better optimize the URLs on your site, for both searchers and crawlers.
By focusing on how they can improve the user experience, your URLs will lead to more organic traffic and better rankings.
Keywords are important, but so is thinking about how your URLs can reinforce your site structure.
It can take some practice (+ some time planning out URLs in SEO tools like Screaming Frog), but the more you do it the more intuitive it will become.
The worst thing you can do is be lazy and ignore it, even for a few pages.
Now it’s your turn.
Now I’d like to turn it over to you to spark a debate or lead a new discussion.
What in this post were you excited about? What was useful? What would you like to read more about?
Or maybe you just have a question about something you read.
Either way, let us know in the comments below.