Anybody who maintains a website will know that every page has its own unique address. However, these can take many forms – and it’s not always easy to know what’s best SEO practice for URLs.
Is it better to keep them short and readable, or long and keyword rich? What’s the difference between HTTP and HTTPS? Are capital letters and special symbols allowed?
In this post, we’re going to look at what makes an SEO-friendly URL – and cover some common mistakes to avoid.
What is a URL?
The acronym ‘URL’ stands for ‘uniform resource locator’. It’s the unique address that a web user can enter into their address bar to go directly to any page on the internet (in other words, what we would more casually call a ‘web address’).
Beyond one or two givens – such as the connection protocol followed by a colon and two slashes (https://), or the top-level domain (.com) – web URLs do not necessarily follow particular guidelines and can be formatted in a number of ways.
The use of folders, file type extensions such as .html, underscores, hyphens, and special characters are often dictated by the webmaster’s preference as much as technical convention.
However, some guidelines for the formation of URLs have been laid down by the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG) in what is known as the URL standard.
These include rules such as a requirement to encode special characters with ASCII codes so that they don’t cause issues. (For example, the empty space character in a filename like “my page.html” could be URL encoded as “my%20page.html”).
HTTP vs HTTPS
You may have noticed a difference between two different types of URLs.
Some addresses begin with a http:// protocol – while others begin with https://. So what’s the difference?
In the early days of the internet, HTTP was the standard protocol. It was in widespread use, but wasn’t especially secure (without getting too technical, it essentially meant that a user’s browser couldn’t be 100% sure that the data it received as a response to a server request had truly originated from the expected source).
HTTPS is the more modern technology, and it offers a more secure connection between the user’s computer and the web server.
Since 2014, Google has favoured HTTPS websites in its search results – in many cases ranking them above HTTP sites of otherwise equivalent value. And as a ranking factor this has proven to be increasingly crucial in the years since.
Today, there can be no ambiguity: you need an HTTPS web address if you’re serious about SEO.
To do this, you’ll need to obtain an SSL certificate for your website. These can cost money and require paid renewal, although there are free services (such as Let’s Encrypt).
URLs can contain capital letters, and are considered case-sensitive.
This means that these two URLs could theoretically be completely different pages with different content:
For SEO purposes, this can be a concern. Search engine spiders could interpret two variant URLs with the same content as duplicate pages – which can cause indexing issues and the misallocation of the spider’s crawl budget.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to standardise all the URLs on your website to lowercase – allowing you to avoid these kinds of mixups.
Are short or long URLs better for SEO?
Finding a good URL length for SEO can be a bit of a balancing act. It’s good to have something long enough to contain relevant keywords – but if it’s too long, it won’t be very appealing to users or search bots.
Studies have shown that URLs on the shorter side tend to do better in rankings, so it’s a good idea to think about ways to get highly relevant keywords into a short, readable package.
One way to get more keywords in is to include them in the URL folder structure. For example, we might do something like this:
This is not too long, it’s quite readable, and it’s also highly relevant for users searching for special offers on shoes.
Ideally, a good URL ought to be appealing to humans – or nobody will want to click it.
For example, some websites use URLs that look like this:
What is this page about? For what subject is it relevant? From the URL alone, it’s impossible to say – and that’s a problem.
Dynamic URLs like these that comprise parameters are sometimes a necessary element of modern web design, but for SEO and user experience purposes they should be designed in such a way that they are as minimal, friendly and readable as possible.
For search crawlers, the URL is a way to send a very strong signal about the page topic and the keywords for which it’s relevant. An ugly string of alphabet spaghetti is often a wasted opportunity to craft a URL that will give the search engine more reasons to rank your page highly.
Subdomains or subfolders?
Let’s consider the following URLs:
- blog.mysite.com (subdomain)
- mysite.com/blog (subfolder)
If you’re unsure which of these URLs is the right approach for your project, you should be aware that Google often considers subdomain sites to be separate, mini-sites in their own right.
This might be what you want (if you are actually making a separate site that doesn’t have anything to do with the main one), but often you will want the site section to inherit the domain authority and SEO advantages of the main website.
By putting the new section on a subdomain, you’re telling Google not to associate it with the rest of the site – which for many SEO projects could be a major missed opportunity.
In conclusion, there are many things to consider when planning out the URL structures for your website.
Using HTTPS, avoiding capitalisation, keeping your URLs short and readable and making sure you know the difference between subdomains and subfolders are all great ways to make sure your web addresses are helping (and not hindering) your SEO efforts.