The Importance of URL Structure

So, you’ve built your website, optimized your copy, and maybe even traveled down the road of Search Engine Optimization and Digital Marketing. These are all great steps toward the successful online marketing of your web property, but your marketing efforts shouldn’t end there. An important component that often gets overlooked by marketers is the URL structure, usually  because it’s viewed as “technical stuff” in the process of preparing a website for search engines and a better user experience. For that, I call shenanigans and declare the URL an important piece of the overall content marketing puzzle.

What is a URL?

Let me preface this article with a little definition to make sure that we are all on the same page. A URL, or Uniform Resource Locator, is the abbreviation for the string that creates the reference to a resource (like a page on a website). Web browsers display the URL in the address bar and most people refer to them as the web address. If you want to dig deeper into the technical aspects of a URL, this article on wikipedia will give you a good deal of information on the subject.

what is a URL

Why is the URL Important?

As the URL is defined, it the is the name of your resource online. Every entity that accesses that element uses, refers to, reads, and otherwise consumes the structure of your URL as an instrumental part of your webpage. Most Content Management systems, like WordPress, provide you with a structure for your URL out-of-the-box. But a little attention and direction can really give your content a step forward in performing online. You may not realize how many places the URL is being used.

  • URLs are often the text used to link to a webpage
  • URLs are commonly printed on marketing collateral such as business cards, flyers, billboards, and emails
  • URLs are an influential factor in how your webpage may rank in an Internet search
  • URLs are often spoken by your sales and/or support staff

These and the many other uses of a URL warrant a better understanding and better usage. So, how should you structure a URL?

Key URL Considerations

  • www or non-www
    Yes Virginia, there is a difference between http://www.LTnow.com and http://LTnow.com. In this example, “www” is a sub domain of LTnow.com and thus a separate web property and is treated as such. So, avoid hostname issues and make sure that your website resolves to one or the other. And when you have that established, be consistent in how you communicate your domain and the use of “www” to potential visitors.
    Which is best, www or non-www? Well, there is no right or wrong answer here — just be consistent. And if your website is already established, I would recommend you search for your domain on Google and see what they are using as your primary URL. If Google lists your URL without the www, then go that route. It is most likely easier to adjust your efforts than to change the mind of Google’s ranking algorithm.
  • Hyphens vs. Underscores
    Rule of thumb, use hyphens. At the time of this article, there is no discernible difference between the hyphen and underscore in your ability to rank. However, there is a big user experience benefit to using hyphens. When a URL containing an underscore is linked to, the underscore will often get masked by the “underline” of the link. This looks like a space to the user. That absence of a character is a critical misstep in the URL structure. A space, when typed into the address bar for a URL, is actually the character set of “%20”. Having missed underscores could lead to a mass of broken links and visitors being sent to an error page.
  • Mixed Case URLs
    Don’t fall into the trap of capitalizing letters in your URL. Even worse than the underscore, capital letters in the URL are a user experience nightmare. Just think about it. When was the last time you pressed the Shift key while you were typing in a web address? Never. Exactly. Users don’t behave this way, so don’t force them. Secondly, the capital letter is a different character than the lowercase letter and thus a separate URL. For example,  www.ltnow.com/importance-url-structure/ is technically different than www.ltnow.com/Importance-URL-Structure/ and if your site doesn’t properly use canonicalization and redirects, this could wreak havoc on your SEO.
  • Make URLs Easy to Remember
    Keep it Simple, Stupid (a.k.a KISS) applies to the URL just as it does to the many elements of marketing. You want the user to remember the URL so they can recall it and become a visitor. If your URL and site architecture is structured in a logical manner, it is more usable to humans and likely to get more value by search engine crawlers. Google’s advice on URL structure is pretty clear:  “A site’s URL structure should be as simple as possible.”
  • Keyword Rich
    As with all things online, the user starts with a search engine query. The URL can play a key factor in giving your content the ability to rank in those searches. Whenever possible, include keywords in your URLs. Just make sure they are logical. Don’t stuff keywords in the URL and run the risk of a Google penalty.
  • Avoid Numbers in the URL
    Content Management Systems make it all too easy to include numbers in the URL, but like the capital letter, a number isn’t very user-friendly. There may be scenarios where a number is applicable to your content, but in general, a number should have to earn its way into the URL, not appear by default.
  • A single URL for a single piece of content
    As I mentioned above with canonicalization, make sure that you are establishing each page on your website to match to a single piece of content – one to one. Content Management and e-commerce systems make it easy to create duplicate content through URL parameters, use of IDs, and printer pages. Luckily, most CMS systems have a means to handle this “duplicate” content issue and I would encourage you to check your site for this issue.
    What about the printer pages? Utilize print stylesheets to provide printable templates for users who may want to print your web page’s content.
  • URL Redirects
    Redirects allow you to avoid duplicate content and maximize the search engine equity that a piece of content can earn. There are many scenarios where you might want to manage URL redirects for your website. Maybe you’ve just migrated from one CMS to another, changed domains, or want to account for misspellings. Regardless of the why, there is a right and a wrong way to handle redirects. But because redirects are a completely separate topic, I encourage you to read this post, “What is the difference between 301 and 302 redirects in SEO?” to learn more.

As you can see, the URL is used for more that just your CMS. With a little thought and attention to detail, the URL can go a long way to maximizing your website’s ability to perform for users and search engines alike.