The three most critical and controlled SEO elements for a targeted keyword of a single webpage are the: 1. URL, 2. Title tag and 3. Content. Your keyword must appear correctly in each of these elements if you want success in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). Please note I make the statement above at the single webpage level. That means I am by no means discounting or undermining the importance of external and internal linking for an entire website. This article will focus on proper URL writing of a single webpage in a vacuum of other SEO tactics.
The first step is locking down your preferred domain setting, and by now you know I encourage site managers to use the following: < http://www.garthobrien.com/ >. My domains include the www. at the front or subdomain level and I always use a trailing slash at the end of the .com/.
Before I get into the heavy lifting I always follow these URL writing rules:
- Always use lowercase;
- Always use a hyphen or dash to separate words and never use underscores or spaces;
- Always use keywords throughout the entire URL and never use GUIDs;
- Try to keep your content one to two folder levels deep (3 if absolutely necessary);
- Never use special characters (*^!@$).
Now let’s apply those rules to a fictitious client (Mocha House) that owns a coffee shop in Seattle and offers the following products: coffee, tea and pastries.
1. Search engines are pretty good now at figuring out www.MochaHouse.com and www.mochahouse.com point to the same URL. However, I have seen at an enterprise website where the search engines count each of those URLs as separate URLs creating duplicate content pages. You want to avoid that from happening. You also want to make linking back to your site as easy as possible and most people write URLs in all lowercase. Make sure those difficult to earn backlinks are pointing to a properly lowercase formatted URL.
2. This might be old school but to ensure the engines are crawling and properly understanding your targeted keyword or phrase I use a hyphen or dash to separate words in my URLs. The only exception to this rule is when crafting a domain name. I stay away from separating words in the domain. Also, do NOT use underscores or spaces.
3. Always use keyword URLs. People are searching for a product name, movie title, kind of flower or job title. They are not searching for a randomly database assigned ID#. Never use GUID URLs.
4. Some SEOs may disagree with this next best practice, but I have seen SERP improvement when a website reduces their folder structure to one to two folders deep. It seems the farther content is located away from the root directory or domain level the less importance that content is assigned by the engines. There are a few cases for exceptionally large websites with deep content verticals to adopt a three deep folder structure, but those are rare.
5. Special characters have been known to wreck havoc on getting context indexed and further adds to point #3 above. Do not get “creative” with your URLs to make life easier for development. If I had to break-up the trinity of URLs, Title tag and Content I would probably rank them in the following of importance:
2. Title tag
I have seen pages with zero content but an optimized URL and Title tag perform very well in the SERPs (pages without any internal or external linking even). I have seen great content pages perform poorly with a GUID URL and brand repeated Title tag (pages with nominal external and internal linking). In fact, I have seen this for the competitive keyword “SEO Tools” which net around 90,000 global monthly searches in Google. For nearly a year a friend’s site with zero links or content was listed in the first 10 Google results only because of the site’s domain and Title tag was optimizing for “SEO Tools” or closely related phrases.
That means do not mess up your URLs with special characters and follow the rest of the advice above.
THE BONUS ROUND
How do I know what to name my content folders or site categories?
In most cases your large content sections should be easy to identify and organize. Sometimes that is not the case and this exercise can require the assistance of an Information Architect and/or an Usability expert working in concert with your SEO. Once you have isolated your content buckets then you must conduct proper keyword research to maximize your search engine referral traffic. For example, if you were operating a car and truck website you would want to use SUV instead of Sport Utility Vehicle, and you would only learn that from conducting keyword research.
Continuing to work with our fictitious client above I would naturally create the following content categories or folders: coffee, tea and pastries. Assuming the keyword research favored thosewords I would write the URLs below for those categories:
Then I would create a webpage for each specific coffee, tea and pastry sold at that coffee shop.
There are my five tips and best practices for URL writing. For large sites with many content verticals you really need an experienced SEO on-hand to help your IA or Usability expert when crafting the URL structure. The pointers above will help, but to prevent mistakes that will be costly and painful to correct get plugged in with a seasoned SEO vet.