Why URLs Should be Readable and How to Apply Best Practises

It is inevitable that I will be asked about URL’s when we take on a project, during a build, or in discussion with business owners and marketers when discussing best practises or/ and website architecture. Unfortunately many website owners feel that the layout and format of their URL’s are not important enough.

Search engines have always recommended that web addresses, also commonly referred to as URLs (Uniform resource locator), to be kept as simple and easily understandable as possible. The benefits of keeping a simple URL structure serves two purposes in particular:Domain Name System (DNS)

Helping users – Visitors to your website are much more likely to immediately make sense out of descriptive URLs such as www.yourdomain.com/transport rather than www.yourdomain.com/123?_y8, thereby increasing the click-through rate in search engine results. On top of this, overly long and complex URLs give an unappealing, cluttered and messy impression. When navigating using the internet browser Firefox, users may want to go back to one of your pages they previously visited on a particular subject, by typing the URL into the address bar, they will more likely be able to identify the page if you have used the subject keywords in the URL.

Indexing by search engines – The contents of the URL give indicators to search engines to understand what your web page is about so descriptive key words are helpful here. Search engines will often truncate URLs in their results if they are too long to display, so again, the shorter the better.

Websites with dynamic URL structures such as e-commerce sites often run into problems, as a changing product inventory means that URLs will often look something like www.yourdomain.com/?sessionid=4&productID=537. Where practical, we recommend that they remain as descriptive as possible, with the product name in at least the sub folder. Using the previous example, this would look something like www.yourdomain.com/red-tshirts/?sessionid=4&productID=537.

Word seperators

The best practice when it comes to using word separators is to opt for hyphens as oppose to underscores. The reason for this is that Google does not treat underscores as word separators. For instance redtshirts would be treated the same way as red_tshirts. This impact is minimal, as Google will take into account many other SEO signals to determine the relevance of the web page such as topicality, relevancy, trust, etc. Therefore it is worth implementing this if setting up new webpages, but probably not necessary for an old website structure using underscores. For other search engines, there is actually no difference between using under scores or hyphens – the reason Google treats under dashes as single entities goes back to it’s beginnings when it was created by programmers, who were used to searching for programming terms which used underscores e.g. TMP_MAX.

Character limitations

Another factor to take into account for websites having trouble imposing simple URL structures are the technical limitations imposed by search engines and registrars. The longest legal domain name is 63 characters as well as the four characters for extensions like .com. For users, the shortest domains will be easier to spell, write and share. When it comes to full web addresses, the maximum number of characters that search engines will index is up to 2047 characters. However, tests have shown that URLs over 1855 characters can often throw errors in the search engine results if anyone clicks on the link. Therefore URLs should be kept under 1855 characters at the bare minimum to make sure that they are indexed and will work when a user clicks on the link. In any case, many CMS platforms such as WordPress will prevent the user from using any URL structures over 200 characters (using database limitations).

And finally but least, it is far easier for a human to remember and discuss at a later date a well formed URL. They will hardly remember a URL that has multiple and/or unusual characters within appended to the domain name.

Related Info: Domain Name System

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