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Tin Foil Hat? I Have Mine On

Mark Jackson
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Google recently announced on its Webmaster Central Blog that you absolutely should not rewrite your URLs when you have dynamic URLs.

In this same post, Google says a rewritten URL can slightly increase your CTR, although there isn't a "significant disadvantage" in terms of indexing and ranking.

OK... Then they do use these factors somewhat in their rankings.

So, that means rewriting URLs might increase your CTRs on rankings you already have and take away this slight "disadvantage" in indexing and ranking." Plus, this will tighten your SEO efforts and push up your rankings due to the keyword usage in the URL.

Now, I'm not saying that I always wear a tin foil hat. But, when I read Google's Webmaster Central blog, I also don't blindly believe everything I read.

Google's intentions are good, but we must also remember that they aren't in the business of helping your Web site rank highly/naturally in Google. They're in the business of generating good "natural" search engine results that keep people using Google.

If their algorithm were easy to manipulate, their search engine results would suffer. It's almost advantageous of them to tell you "not to do something," because it's going to lead to many people doing something that could exploit a "weakness" in their algorithm.

I always consider the pros and cons before recommending a URL rewrite. However, Google's post is a blanket statement for "all" Web sites and I don't believe this is solid advice for everyone.

Dynamic URLs can be crawled. All things being equal, if your Web site had static/keyword-rich URLs, the keyword rich URL will outrank the dynamic URL.

The number of parameters really "don't matter" if we're speaking about the ability of the search engines to index a page. They've gotten a lot better at indexing URLs of any size.

However, for ranking on Google, I recommend fewer parameters and -- when possible -- rewriting URLs to include keywords. Keywords in URLs are particularly effective for ranking on Yahoo, which has weighed keywords in the URL more heavily than Google.

And, when Google speaks of "keeping URLs short," this is an important note. You should try to keep pages of your Web site as close to the root domain as you can. For example: www.example.com/category-name/product-name/ rather than www.example.com/junk/more-junk/even-more-junk/getting-out-of-control-now-junk/cannot-believe-how-many-subdirectories-I-am-using-in-my-URLs/.

Google puts out some good information for most Webmasters/Web marketers. URL rewriting certainly isn't something you jump into without having considered all of the possible ramifications. And, I'm certain that Google posted this to not only help many Webmasters/Web marketers, but also to help Google.

Google and other search engines don't want you to manipulate their search results. They want to be able to rank Web sites based purely off of their algorithm, which (ideally) is "manipulation proof."

Over the years, Google (and other search engines) have addressed areas of their algorithm to filter for things that were easy to manipulate. For example, there was a time when directory links were weighted more. Almost overnight, so many directories were developed (in India and everywhere else) that the search engines had to react and find other ways/method to weight the directories value or else their rankings could have suffered.

This post about URL rewriting serves two purposes:

  1. Protect Webmasters/Web marketers from messing up their Web sites. For most who undertake URL rewriting, they may not have a SEO professional in the mix. They may rewrite the URLs and then forget to do a redirection of the old/legacy URL to the new location/URL. Or, if they manage to remember the redirection, they may institute a 302 (temporary) redirect rather than a 301 (permanent) redirect. If, for example, you were to rewrite and forget your 301 redirects, you're likely to lose any existing rankings that existed for these pages/URLs.
  2. Google's latest algorithm weighting may weight keywords in the URL more than they have in their recent history. So, of course they're going to tell you "you shouldn't rewrite your URLs" because they may now consider keywords in URL as a larger factor in their algorithm than they have. If they were to tell you to rewrite your URLs, and there was a run on rewriting URLs, then Google's rankings could dramatically be affected.

Within the past month, some pages have gained rankings in Google and "nothing" has been done to further optimize the pages. The only factor that I could see changing these pages ranking status is one thing: Google's algorithm must be weighing keywords in URL more than they have in the past.

I won't pretend to be the "all knowing" SEO stud. Like other SEOs, my recommendations come from what I've witnessed working. If you were to ask me today if I recommend URL rewriting, my answer is still the same as it was when I wrote my initial column about URL rewriting in March: "It depends."

Google's post has done little/nothing to change my mind. If anything, I might even feel a little stronger about the benefits of URL rewriting done properly.

As with any advice/commentary provided in my columns, I strongly recommend that you not attempt to move forward with URL rewriting without the proper management of the process and advisement of a SEO professional. There can be adverse consequences if a novice attempts this.

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