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The Ultimate Guide for an SEO-Friendly URL Structure

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To many, URLs are just seemingly inconsequential addresses to webpages. However, how you structure URLs for SEO matters.

They may seem less important than the title and heading elements but URLs can be a powerful tool for achieving SEO success.

Are Keywords in URLs Used for Ranking?

There’s no clear answer to whether keywords in the URL are used for ranking. Here’s why.

2010: Approach Keywords in URL Like a User

In 2010, Google’s Matt Cutts published a video where he discussed keywords in the path name versus keywords in the filename.

The path name is:

/tools/wood/drills.html

The multi-hyphen filename is:

/tools-wood-drills.html

Cutts recommended approaching the problem from the point of what a user might prefer.

He stated that the multi-hyphenated version may appear spammy to users.

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He then affirmed that there is no multi-hyphen algorithm that will penalize multiple hyphens, doubling down on the approach of looking at it from a user perspective.

Cutts implied that there was a user impact effect in the following statement:

“As far as search engine ranking, I’m not sure that there’s really that much difference between the two.

But you might want to be a little careful because of the user experience of having a really long filename that’s just stuffed with hyphens. People might not like it if they see dash, dash, dash, dash, dash, dash and so they might not click on it.”

Matt didn’t address the ranking factor aspect.

It could be that what he wanted to stress was that the user experience part – what people would click on in the search engine results pages (SERPs) – was more important than any ranking factor-related benefit.

2011: Keywords in Domain are Ranking Factors

In 2011, in a somewhat related video about keywords in domains, he stated that Google was thinking about turning down the influence of keywords in the domain.

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Like keywords in URLs, keywords in domains were also ranking factors.

But they were downplayed in terms of how important they were.

Matt downplays their ranking factor role in favor of other factors related to user experience and marketing – which is similar to how he also downplayed keywords in the URL.

2016: Google Says Keywords are Very Small Ranking Factor

In a Webmaster Central hangout in January 2016, John Mueller did in fact acknowledge that keywords in the URL were a ranking factor.

However, he minimized the importance of that as a ranking factor, describing its influence as being “very small.”

Mueller:

“I believe that’s a very small ranking factor, so it’s not something I’d really try to force. And it’s not something where I’d say it’s even worth your effort to kind of restructure your site just so you can include keywords in the URL.”

Calling it “very small” lines up well with what Cutts had been saying all along – that there are other areas of a site that are more important to focus on.

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2017: Keywords in URL are Overrated

Mueller continued to minimize the importance of keywords in the URL as a ranking factor.

In 2017, he called them overrated.

2018: Don’t Worry About Keywords in URL

As recently as 2018, Mueller continued to downplay keywords in URL as a ranking factor, saying that they’re not even seen by users.

(Presumably, he’s referencing URLs invisibility in the Google SERPs.)

Keywords in a URL may be a ranking factor but judging from Googler statements, it’s a very minor one.

Are Keywords in Bare URL Links Used as Anchor Text?

There’s an idea around that if someone links to your site with just the link, Google will at least use the keywords in the URL as anchor text, which will help that site rank better for that anchor text.

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That kind of link is sometimes called a naked link.

It’s called naked because it is a link in the form of a URL instead of hidden in an anchor text.

Bare URL:

http://www.example.com/

URL in an anchor text:

Click here!

Mueller said (How Google Handles Naked Links, September 2020) that naked links do not pass anchor text information.

This is what he said:

“From what I understand, our systems do try to recognize this and say well, this is just a URL that is linked, it’s not that there’s a valuable anchor here.

So we can take this into account as a link but we can’t really use that anchor text for anything in particular.

So from that point of view it’s a normal link but we don’t have any context there.”

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Can Keywords in a URL Increase Clicks From SERPS?

There’s an old SEO idea that says using keywords in the URL will help stimulate a higher click-through rate (CTR) from the search results pages (SERPs).

This might have been true in the past.

It’s less true today, particularly for sites that use breadcrumb navigation and/or breadcrumb navigation structured data.

Google is instead using the category name in the search results for sites that feature breadcrumb navigation or breadcrumb navigation structured data.

The keywords in the URL are not visible.

Screenshot of Google search results with no discernible URLsScreenshot of a search result where Google does not show the URL

For sites that don’t use breadcrumb navigation or the breadcrumb structured data, Google does display the URLs with keywords in them.

But Google does not highlight them.

If Google did highlight the keywords in the URL, it might have helped to draw the eye to the listing—but this is not the case.

Screenshot of a keyword showing in Google's search engine results pages aka SERPsScreenshot showing that keywords in the SERPs are not highlighted

What Use Are Keywords in a URL?

Aside from a very minor possible ranking factor weight, there are clear benefits to site visitors for keywords in a URL.

Keywords in the URL can help users understand what a page is about.

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Even though those keywords might not always show up in the SERPs, they will show when linked as a bare URL.

Example of a bare URL:

https:www.example.com/widgets/best-widgets

When in doubt, optimize for the user because Google always recommends making pages useful for users.

This tends to align with the kinds of webpages Google wants to rank.

Best Practices for URL Structure

Standardize Your URLs in Lowercase

Most servers don’t have problems with mixed case URLs.

Even so, it’s a good idea to standardize what your URLs look like.

URLs are commonly written in the lowercase “like-this-dot-com” as opposed to mixed case “Like-That-Dot-Net” or in all uppercaseLIKE-THIS-DOT-BIZ.”

It’s best to do that as well if only because that’s what users expect and it is easier to read than all caps.

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Keeping your URLs standardized will help prevent linking errors within the site and from outside of the site, too.

Use Hyphens, Not Underscores

Always use hyphens (-) and not underscores (_) because underscores cannot be seen when the URL is published as a bare link.

Here’s an example of how underscores in links are a bad practice:

Animated GIF showing how underscores are invisible when formatted within a linkUnderscores are invisible when formatted in a link. This means that users are unable to accurately see what the URL is.Animated GIF showing how underscores are invisible when formatted within a link

Use Accurate Keywords in Category URL Structure

Using a less relevant keyword as the category name is a common mistake that comes from choosing the keyword with the most traffic.

Sometimes the highest traffic keyword isn’t necessarily what the pages in the category are about.

Select category names that truly describe what the pages contained within it are about.

When in doubt, pick the words that are most relevant to users who are looking for the content or products that are contained within those categories.

Avoid Using Superfluous Words in URL Structure

Sometimes a CMS might add the word /category/ into the URL structure.

This is an undesirable URL structure.

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There is no justification for a URL structure that looks like /category/widget/.

It should simply be /widget/.

Similarly, if a better word than “blog” exists for telling users what to expect out of a section of your site, then use that instead.

Words guide users to content they are looking for.

Use them appropriately.

Future Proof Your URLs

Just because a date is in the title of the article doesn’t mean it belongs in the URL.

If you intend to create a “Top xxx for 20xx” type of post, it is generally a better practice to use the same URL year after year.

So instead of:

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example.com/widgets/top-widgets-2020

Try removing the year and simply go with:

example.com/widgets/top-widgets

The benefit of updating the content and the title year after year and keeping the same URL is that all of the links that went to the previous year of content remain.

Anyone who follows the old links will find the updated content.

It’s possible to create an archive of previous years, as well.

That’s up to you.

Trailing Slash or No Trailing Slash

A trailing slash is this symbol: [ / ].

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The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) the group responsible for web standards – recommends best practice is that the trailing slash should be used to indicate a “container URI” for denoting parent/child relationships.

(A URI is used to identify resources in the same way as a URL, except those resources may not be on the web.)

A parent/child relationship is when a category contains numerous webpages.

The category “container” is the parent and the webpages contained within it are the children documents that are contained within the category.

This is what the W3C states in the section called, Linked Data Platform Best Practices and Guidelines:

“2.6 Include a trailing slash in container URIs
When representing container membership with hierarchical URLs, including the trailing slash in a container’s URI makes it easier to use relative URIs.”

In HTML, the trailing slash is supposed to indicate the presence of a directory or a category section.

In 2017 Google’s John Mueller tweeted that apart from the home page, a URL with and a URL without a trailing slash are different web pages.

For example:

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https://www.example.com/widgets

can be a different page from:

https://www.example.com/widgets/

/widgets denotes a page while /widgets/ represents a directory or category section.

Mueller’s tweet in 2017 reaffirmed an official Google blog post from 2010 (To Slash or Not to Slash) that made similar statements.

However, even in that 2010 blog post, Google pretty much left it up to publishers to decide how to use trailing slashes.

But Google’s adherence to a common trailing slash convention reflects that point of view.

Google Is Flexible on Trailing Slash Best Practices

Here’s an example of how Google codes URLs.

This URL features the .html at the end and is clearly a web page:

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https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2020/11/timing-for-page-experience.html

This URL ending with a trailing slash is a category page:

https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2020/11/

And this is the container for the month year of 2020:

https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2020/

The above examples conform with the standard recommendation to use trailing slashes at the end for a category directory and to not use it at the end of the URL when it’s a web page.

Google URLs Lacking Trailing Slash Altogether

However, other sections published by Google don’t conform to that standard.

The following examples are categories and webpages that do not use a trailing slash.

  • This is a URL for a category section:
    https://developers.google.com/analytics
  • This is a web page:
    https://developers.google.com/analytics/devguides/integrate
  • And this is another web page:
    https://developers.google.com/analytics/devguides/collection/firebase/android

All of those webpages and category pages look similar because they don’t use a trailing slash.

Google Is Flexible in Use of Trailing Slash

The above examples show that yes, there are best practices.

But this is one of those best practices that can be ignored.

As far back as 2010, Google’s advice on the use of trailing slashes was flexible.

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According to Google:

“…you’re free to choose whichever you like.”

Perhaps the most important point about trailing slash in the URL is that you choose one way of doing it and sticking with that so you can avoid confusion.

It also makes it easier to redirect non-trailing slash URLs to the trailing slash, etc.

URLs for SEO Purposes

The topic of SEO-friendly URLs is deeper than one may suspect, with many nuances to it.

While Google is increasingly not showing URLs in the SERPs, popular search engines like Bing and DuckDuckGo still show them.

URLs are a good way to signal to a potential site visitor what a page is about.

The proper use of URLs can help improve click-through rates wherever the links are shared.

And keeping URLs shorter makes them user friendly and easier to share.

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Webpages that make it easy to share are helping users make the pages popular.

Don’t underestimate the power of popularity for ranking purposes because some of what search engines do is to show users what the users are expecting to see.

The URL is a humble and somewhat overlooked part of the SEO equation but it can contribute a great deal to helping your pages rank well.

More Resources:


Image Credits

Featured image and screenshots by author, November 2020

Searchenginejournal.com

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SEO

Three critical keyword research trends you must embrace

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Three critical keyword research trends you must embrace

30-second summary:

  • Exact-match keywords are useful for researching patterns and trends but not so much for optimization purposes
  • When optimizing for keywords, optimize for intent and solve problems, don’t just match your page to the keyword
  • Brand-driven keywords should be your top priority because you cannot control SERPs but you can rank assets that will drive people back to your site
  • Instead of focusing on keyword strings, research your niche entities and find the ways to associate your business with those through on-site content and PR/link building efforts

If you ask an SEO expert to name one SEO tactic that has changed the most over the years, they are likely to confidently answer “link building.” Some will point out to “technical tasks”, and very few will ever think of “keyword research.”

The truth is, most SEO tasks look completely different these days but few SEO experts have changed the fundamental way they do keyword research and optimize content for those keywords.

Yes, we seem to have finally left keyword density behind (unless Google forces it back) but fundamentally nothing has changed: We run keyword tools, find relevant keyword strings and use them as much as we can throughout a dedicated page.

In the meantime, Google’s understanding and treatments of keywords has changed completely.

1. Exact-match keywords are getting obsolete

Google has a long history of trying to understand search queries beyond matching word strings in them to the documents in the search index.

And they succeeded.

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It started years ago with Hummingbird being first quietly introduced then officially announced in August of 2013.

Yet, few SEOs actually understood the update or realized how much of a change to everything they knew it was.

With Hummingbird Google made it clear that they were striving for a deeper understanding of searching journeys and that would ultimately fix all their problems. As they manage to know exactly what a searcher wants and learn to give them that, no fake signals or algorithm manipulations will impact their search quality.

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Hummingbird was the first time Google announced they wanted to understand “things” instead of matching “strings of words.” In other words, with Hummingbird exact-match keyword strings started becoming less and less useful.

Then, after Hummingbird came BERT that helped Google to enhance its understanding of how people search. 

Exact match keywords becoming obsolete after the Google BERT updateImage source: Google

There’s a short but pretty enlightening video on the struggles and solutions of Google engineers trying to teach the machine to understand the obvious: What is it people mean when typing a search query?

That video explains the evolution of SEO perfectly:

  • Context is what matters
  • Google is struggling, yet slowly succeeding at understanding “context, tone and intention”
  • Search queries are becoming less predictable as more and more people talk to a search engine they way they think
  • Stop words do actually add meaning, and are often crucial at changing it.

The takeaway here: Keyword research tools are still useful. They help you understand the patterns: How people tend to phrase a query when looking for answers and solutions in your niche.

But those keywords with search volume are not always what people use to research your target topic. According to Google, people search in diverse, often unpredictable ways. According to Google, on a daily basis 15% of searches are ones Google hasn’t seen before.

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Every day Google encounters 15% of completely new search queries. That’s how diverse searching behaviors are.

Moving away from keyword matching, Google strives to give complete and actionable answers to the query. And that’s what your SEO strategy should be aiming at doing as well.

Whatever keyword research process you’ve been using is likely still valid: It helps you understand the demand for certain queries, prioritize your content assets and structure your site.

It’s the optimization step that is completely different these days. It is no longer enough to use that word in the page title, description and headings.

So when creating an optimization strategy for every keyword you identify:

  • Try to figure out what would satisfy the search intent behind that query: What is it that searcher really looking for? A list? A video? A product to buy? A guide to follow? Even slight changes in a searchable keyword string (e.g. plural vs singular) can signal a searching intent you need to be aware of.
  • Search Google for that query and look through search snippets: Google is very good at identifying what a searcher needs, so they generate search snippets that can give you lots of clues.
See also  Use Cases & Opportunities You Need To Know

Notice how none of the high-ranking documents has that exact search query included:

Ranking resources for diverse keywords vs exact match keywordsImage source: Screenshot made by the author

2. Branded keywords are your priority

More and more people are using search to navigate to a website, and there are several reasons for that:

  • A few strongest browsers allow people search from the address bar (those include Safari on both desktop and mobile and, obviously, Google Chrome)
  • People are getting used to voice searching, so they just speak brand names to perform a  search.

Ranking for branded keywords to funnel target audience to assets

Image source: Screenshot made by the author

In other words, your customers who likely know about your brand and are possibly ready to make a purchase – those hard-earned customers are forced to search for your brand name or for your branded query.

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And what will they see?

It is astounding how many companies have no idea what comes up for their branded search, or how many customers they lose over poorly managed (or more often non-existent) in-SERP reputation management.

There are three crucial things to know about brand-driven search:

  • These are mostly high-intent queries: These searchers are typing your brand name intending to buy from you
  • These are often your existing, returning customers that tend to buy more than first-time customers
  • Both of the above factors make these your brands’ top priority.

And yet, you don’t have control over what people see when searching for your brand. In fact, monitoring and optimizing for those brand-driven queries is not a one-time task. It is there for as long as your brand exists.

  • Treat your brand name as a keyword: Expand it, optimize for it, monitor your site’s rankings
  • Identify deeper level problems behind your customers’ brand-driven searching patterns: What is it you can improve to solve problems behind those queries?
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Identifying customer pain points for keyword researchImage source: Screenshot made by the author

Your branded search queries should become part of your sales funnel – everything from About page to product pages and lead magnets should capture those brand-driven opportunities.

In many cases, when you see a large amount of brand-driven keywords, you may need a higher level approach, like setting up a standalone knowledge base.

3. Entities are key

Entities are Google’s way to understand this world.

Entities are all proper names out there: Places, people, brands, etc.

Google has a map of entities – called Knowledge Graph – that makes up Google’s understanding of the world.

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Entities help Google understand the context and the search intent.

Using entities and semantic searchImage search: The beginner’s guide to semantic search

Being Google’s entity means coming up in searches where you were implied but never mentioned:

Using Google entities for keyword researchImage source: Screenshot made by the author

Through entity associations, Google knows what any search is about.

Entities should be the core of your keyword research process: What are known entities is your niche and how do you associate your brand with those entities?

Conclusion

Search engine optimization is evolving fast, so it requires an agile strategy for brands to keep up. If you are doing keyword research the old, exact-match, way, your business is about 10 years behind!


Ann Smarty is the Founder of Viral Content Bee, Brand and Community manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas. She can be found on Twitter @seosmarty.

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