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Categories: How to, Internet, Wordpress. Tags: ,

SEO friendly URLs: myth and fact

February 7, 2009 22 Comments

There's a lot said about SEO friendly URLs - the idea that having keywords in your URL will help you rank well for those keywords. I list several sites saying this below ...

The bad news: SEO-friendly URLs are largely a myth. They don't make that much difference. The good news: it's still worth putting keywords in your URLs.

Confused? I'll explain ...

Google doesn't take much account of keywords in URLs

Intuitively, you might think google would want to take account of what a URL has in it. This sounds a fairly good guide to what the page is about.

However, the drawback is that lots of URLs aren't SEO friendly - EG those of CMSes that don't generate them. Or consider youtube which has no keywords in its URLs.

And Google wouldn't want to artificially boost pages just because they happened to have SEO-friendly URLs. This is, at heart, just a technical issue that shouldn't really influence the search results.

So having keywords in your URLs makes little difference to how well you rank in google's results. SEO friendly URLs are largely a myth.

Don't believe me?

In its guide to SEO, google does say to improve the structure of your URLs. I explain why below. But it doesn't at any point say that keywords in your URLs will help you rank better for those keywords.

And it's not just google that says it. Check out the SEOmoz guide to google ranking factors on the subject of keywords in URLs. Sample quote: "The influence of this one is microscopic."

However ... you should still use seo friendly URLs

There is still a reason to use SEO friendly URLs. And it's because of second order SEO factors. For instance (these are all reasons google gives):

  • Google bolds keywords searched for in URLs in its results. So using keyword rich URLs will encourage users to click your page - because the words they searched for will stand out in bold in the URL in the results. This is also a reason to have short URLs - google will truncate them if they are too long.
  • Google takes a lot of account of the terms used to link to a page (so if you link to this page, don't say 'read this page' - use 'SEO friendly URLs' as your link text ...). If keywords are in your URL, and people use the full URL as the link text, you'll get benefit from the keywords in the URL. Of course, most people don't link like this, and some forum software truncates URLs.
  • SEO friendly URLs will help users understand what the page is about. So if it looks relevant, they are more likely to click it.

So, there is a reason to use SEO-friendly URLs - it's just maybe not the one you thought. SEO friendly URLs should be aimed at humans to encourage click throughs. They should not be aimed at search engines to influence rankings.

Update 18 March: Matt Cutts of Google has posted a video saying that having keywords in your URL "does help a little bit". He doesn't actually say how (ie whether they directly affect rankings or whether it's these second-order affects). And he says not to obsess about them. So the conclusion remains the same: they don't make much difference to rankings ... but still use them!

SEO friendly URLs in wordpress

There's a lot written about this. I, for instance, use the post name as my URL. So the URL of this post is www.malcolmcoles.co.uk/blog/seo-friendly-urls-myth-and-fact/. This is deemed an SEO-friendly structure.

However, before you rush to adopt this, be aware of the drawbacks of SEO friendly URLs for wordpress. Read this.

What other people say about SEO friendly URLs

When you read the following pages, bear in mind that lots of what is said isn't true. But some is. Hopefully if you've read the above, you'll know which is which ... (NB all links made nofollow for now until I can work out why this post won't appear in google results for a search on 'seo friendly urls' ...):

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22 Comments »

  • technomedic says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    In a broader sense you are right, but google never discloses its algorithm of its search engine and you never know exactly what clicks for you. I have seen some sites and blogs in results of some search queries that contained just one or two pages of crap and were still there on top, just because of their URLs.
    Any way thanks for mentioning me

  • Hi Malcolm, I think it's also important for people to realize that making your site addresses 'SEO friendly' isn't just about making them readable for Google, it's making them more user friendly for the audience (those who matter) so even if Google no longer cares about them for SEO value, it's nicer for the end user.

    • Yes, I entirely agree about the user thing. It's just by calling URLs like this SEO-friendly, everyone gets obsessed by ranking as opposed to clickthrough rates. Who knows what happens under Google's hood. But I think it is getting clearer that keywords in URLs don't make a difference to google rankings - but they are friendlier for the audience. Hence my conclusion that you should still use them.

  • Gary says:

    Besides what may be good for SEO and search etc. I believe that it just makes sense to include in the URL words most relevant to the post/page. I know that when I view search results from Google, Yahoo etc. I'm more likely to click on results where the URL is understandable to me rather than just irrelevant words or numbers.

  • Peter Nichol says:

    SEO friendly URLs...

    Does Google like SEO friendly URLs?...

  • Paul Helyer says:

    I believe that SEO is getting closer to usability - by designing a page that talks about the topic in question and contains well structured HTML, you are off to a good start for pleasing Google.

    This applies to URLs, header tags and Meta tags.

  • Well. SEO isn't simply about making a site appear higher in SERPs (although that would superficially seem to be the crux of the matter). You also need to make it the site that users choose to click on.

    "SEO Friendly" is probably a bit misleading. Something like 'natural language' urls is probably better - something that makes sense whether to a machine or a person - will tend to produce better results.

  • james brabyn says:

    was just having this convo with a client yesterday actually, I have recently given my opinion on 'human friendly / search friendly' urls to a few people and have persuaded them to choose urls that have a keyword in them and sometimes a geographical term regarding their area or operation.
    examples
    http://www.essex-units.co.uk
    http://www.edenwood-building-services.co.uk/
    good blog post

  • Sam Smithers says:

    I use WordPress like most bloggers and have the All in one SEO plugin installed. This takes care of the friendly URLS as they are indexed by Google automatically. I would agree with this post and add that most bloggers spend endless hours tweaking titles and copy and miss the important stuff..Like good copy which this article has proven.

    Regards

  • Christina Radisic says:

    Our company name is DR Adept. Yet when used in a url it becomes http://www.dradept.com. Most people calling us can not pronounce our name correctly.

    Our decision to start using SEO friendly urls, was based on making it easier for new clients who prefer to contact us by phone to have an easy name to pronounce.

    Hence Adept web, Essex SEO and Essex Webdesigns but to name a few.

    We also recommend this to our clients.

  • Link Wheel says:

    Having keywords in your URLs makes little difference to how well you rank in google's results and it's making them more user friendly for the audience so even if Google no longer cares about them for SEO value, it's nicer for the end user as Mr.Christopher Ross said.

  • [...] The Vatican should read up on search-engine- / human-friendly URLs. [...]

  • I was desperate to create SEO friendly URL's for our site as I thought we were losing out in search results.

    This article has put my mind at rest, however does highlight the advantage so I will still implement them but no rush for them now.

    Thanks :)

  • Google et al never really spell it out exactly what they use to rank pages or sites.

    I think its a fair comment to say "every little" helps.

    There is no single method to achieve SEO perfection, search friendly urls, meta data, H tags, alt tags, file names, file location folder names, keyword density, sitemaps so on and so forth all just adds up to making it clearer to both search engines and users what your site or page is about.

    Matt Chatterley - im all for using the term 'natural language' URLs - good shout :-)

  • [...] in the longer term. [Short version - I got some bad SEO advice that killed server performance - see this for good advice]. Mea culpa. If I knew more about WordPress and search when I started, I would have [...]

  • C Judd says:

    My web consultant tells me to get rid of all of the hyphenated long urls and to shorten them to keywords that are being highly searched. Starting to think it's a lot of hard manual work for little gain. Will I ever know which way to jump?

    • C Judd: I was going to say that if your site had been up and running for a while, I wouldn't bother changing old URLs, as the effort of redirecting them etc is out of proportion to the benefit.

      But looking at your URLs like: http://www.zebravehicles.co.uk/vans/vehicle-leasing,-car-contract-hire,-nationwide-vehicles,-vansdirect,-low-cost-vans,-motorpoint.html I WOULD recommend changing them as that looks like a nighmare URL!!!! It's of no help to users or search engines ....

      • C Judd says:

        What about the urls that catalog specific vehicles such as /ford-transit-260-swb-85ps-low-roof.... - are these of any value? And is the strategy to match urls to keyword search terms a good one?

        • Matching URLs to keyword search terms is a good idea - just not one that will make much difference to your search engine rankings (as I explain above, though, still do it).

          In general, I would say that /ford-transit-260-swb-85ps-low-roof is too long to be helpful to anyone. However, in YOUR case, I would probably stick with it - you need some way to differentiate the URLs of all the different types of car (I'm not sure you need van-for-sale on the end though - even you got bored and chopped that off!).

          Having said that, you have other issues - such as that page redirecting to a non-canonical version of your homepage ...

          Things I would sort out first: Make sure your HTML titles make it clear that the vehicles are for sale, make sure you use meaningful anchor text to link to your own pages (not 'more info'), add unique meta descriptions, add unique copy to each page. When a vehicle is sold, don't delete the page automate the process of adding "sold" to the page plus a list of current sales for "vehicles like this one".

  • Human friendly URLs? How many *ordinary* people actually read URLs? They click on the Link and it takes them to a page. I have known people that didn't even know you were able to type an URL in the address bar - didn't even know there was an address bar! They Google something and click on the best-looking link.

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