SEO Best Practices – URL Structure

In part three of my series of blog posts on SEO Best Practices I will examine the importance of the URL structure to search engine optimization.

The Best Practice around URL Structure states:

The URL structure of dynamic, database-driven pages should look simple, static and contain a keyword phrase relevant to the theme of the page. What exactly does this mean?

Without getting too technical, most modern websites are based on content management systems (CMS) and are dynamically generated, which means they are built on the fly. The page with all the elements as an entity doesn’t exist, but when your browser requests it, the CMS “assembles” the page from elements in the database and displays them in your browser.

A CMS by default will assign a non search friendly URL to the page, it is best to set up the CMS so it will use the terms you recommend. For example with WordPress, the default permalink layout is  http://mysite.com/?p=123, with ?p=123 being the page name. Doesn’t tell you much about the content of the page does it?

Change the permalink structure to a permalink setting that includes either post or page name as part of the URL structure. This is easy to do with WordPress, for other CMS please consult with the documentation to find out how to change the URL structure.

The URL Structure is the base of the original best practices. Previously with HTML based web design it made sense to give the HTML page files names which matched the content of the page, so instead of page 1, page 2, etc. we called the page about, services, etc. From there it made sense to build on the theme which was established in the URL and incorporate the keywords into the titles, descriptions, etc. today when naming the page/file it still makes sense to use the theme core keyword phrase in the URL structure.

How does Google treat Dashes or Underscores?

How search engines handle dashes and underscores is one of the longest-running SEO questions around.  Unfortunately, Google and Bing differ on how they handle these separators.

Google still doesn’t have a policy firmly in place on how they handle separators. In 2009 Google announced dashes and underscores both served as separators, but then rescinded that statement about a week later, saying it “wasn’t a done deal yet.”

Three almost four years later, it’s still not a done deal … and may never be. There is still a difference between how Google treats underscores in URLs versus how it treats dashes. When Google sees an underscore in a URL, it joins what’s before and after into one term. A dash indicates to separate the words.

How does Bing Handle Underscores/Dashes?

With Bing on the other hand, it makes no difference if you use underscores or dashes in your URLs.

Using underscores? Should I rewrite my URL structure to meet this best practice?

If you are starting a new website, I recommend using dashes to separate keywords in your URLs. Those keywords provide a signal of what the page is about and help with rankings. However, with an existing site that is in Google and Bing — pages are indexed, you’re getting quality converting search traffic, etc. — don’t switch from underscore-based URLs to dashes. The potential challenges from changing URLs could be potentially worse than any gains from having dashes rather than underscores in your URLs.

In the next in the series I will look at title tags.

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