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Improper URLs: It’s Much More than Just a Page Name!

Josh McCoy
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urlstructureOne of the many important on-page SEO elements is having a keyword-relevant URL for a given site page. I was going to say the widely used term “keyword-rich” but that is often misunderstood and usually results in the spamming of site URLs.

Aside from going overboard in URL naming conventions, is the strategy of how it is completed. Impatient SEOs often begin this undertaking by piecemealing the process a URL or two at a time. While they are doing good in continuing to better the site and its pages from an SEO perspective they aren't looking at this in the right light.

The process of creating a great URL doesn’t start at the end of the URL but at the beginning with the folder structure of the site. It's important to show a search engine as well as a user the hierarchy and categorization of site content.

Yes, I know, there are terribly written page naming conventions that still manage to rank well. This is likely because they are very old pages, with a great inbound link profile and a part of an authoritative domain.

Would you rather hand Google a bucket of your site URLs and ask them to figure out where they belong on the site or would it be better to give them several small named buckets of URLs with topically relevant content inside? OK, you don’t have to answer, it’s obvious.

Putting Your Eggs in the Right Baskets

First, let's digress and seek answers to a few monumental questions in building our new site structure which will ultimately compose our new URLs.

  • What do we want users to do on our site?
  • Can our site users find our most important content easily?
  • Is the intent of our site spelled out in our main and supporting navigation?

Answering these questions helps to create ideas on how a site should be laid out navigationally and for your folder structure so that users and search engines alike will be able to easily digest your site content.

The next step is to place this flow into a visually outlined representation via a document, mindmap, spreadsheet, etc. This will give you a reference-able point as you build your URL structure.

Tell Me Doc, How Bad Is It?

Think you may be a victim of terrible URLs? Here is how you can find out. Additionally, it's also the first step in completing your full site URL rewrite.

Utilize a site scraping tool that will run through your site and create an exportable list of all site URLs. My favorite tool of choice is Screaming Frog.

Upon running the scrape of your site URLs, parse out any URLs that are not status 200 live pages. What do you see?

A telltale sign of terrible URL structure is when you scan the list and can't tell what the theme of a given URL is. This is likely because the page, as all others, live directly off the root, have little keyword or relevant text in the naming convention, or are dynamically generated.

Putting it Together

Now it is time to bring the two lists together. I will visit every improper URL in the spreadsheet, identify the theme and category/sub-category of the content and refer to the information architecture reference to help me construct the new URL.

Here is an example of the very ugly URL for the Huffy Dual Suspension Mountain Bike my fictitious site is selling:

www.mccoysbikeshop.com/Products.aspx?Categoryid=94&Productid=72

I can tell from the information architecture that one of our main categories off the site root is Bikes and inside this category we sell Mountain Bikes, Touring Bikes, and Racing Bicycles, which we can call sub-categories. This helps me to decipher that the URL structure should be:

www.mccoysbikeshop.com/bikes/mountain-bikes/name-of-page

I would hope that you would agree the latter URL is much easier to understand what the page will contain rather than my first URL example. Keep in mind to keep the structure within reason. I often see out of control IA’s which lead to a URL “Spamwich”, such as:

/bikes/mens-bikes/mountain-bikes/huffy-dual-suspension-mens-mountain-bike

We want a folder structure where URLs aren't directly off the site root but not six folders deep. From the top of the site each folder is an extra click, and the more folders you have, the longer your conversion funnel gets.

I would also ask that you consider these questions when you think you have this nailed down.

  • Does your main navigation mirror your first level folder structure? 
  • Does the sub-navigation of the site represent second level folders in your URL structure?

We can now see that creating a great URL begins with much more than a page name. Essentially, the page name is the finishing touch to a great URL. The page name should be relevant to the theme of the page but not go overboard in the description of the product.

A URL such as /huffy-dual-suspension-bike is sufficient considering we have it sitting aside the folder structure of /bikes/mountain-bikes/. You also have to mind the time honored SEO commandments of page naming:

  • All characters in lower-case.
  • Hyphens (not underscores), and never, ever, ever separate by an empty space producing the “%20”.
  • Stay away from any dynamic generation or session ID usage.
  • Alleviate the usage of file extensions. If you move to a different scripting language down the road this will help to not have to 301 site URLs again.
  • Page name changes require 301 permanent redirection from old URL to new URL. There is no such word as “delete” in the world of SEO. Pages don’t get trashed, they get redirected.

Now Get to It!

I’ve managed to detail this process in a few short paragraphs. Truly, this is an effort that takes time and must be error free or your next project will be cleaning up site 404s.

Your new site URLs will benefit the user as it will a crawling bot. These visitors will now have a clear understanding of where they are on your site and what the keyword themes of your pages are.


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