SEO Friendly URL Structures: Choosing The Right Permalinks

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As an internet user, you know what a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is — but did you know that your URL structure or the permalink settings as WordPress calls them, can impact Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

That’s right, something the visitor barely sees, let alone analyzes, in the address bar at the top of the screen matters to search engines. We’ll explain why in the latest edition of our SEO Like a CEO series.

First, let’s get the technical definition out of the way.

What is a URL?

The URL is essentially a unique identifier, used to locate a post or page on the internet. It’s made up of a few technical parts:

URL broken down into the sections Scheme, Host, Path, Query, and Fragment

Some URL components are optional and not listed here, including the user / authentication and ports. For this post, we mostly stuck with aspects that publishers who are worried about SEO should consider.

Scheme

On the web these days, this is generally just http:// or https://. At this point it’s hardly a secret that TLS/SSL is an important ranking signal for security reasons, so we’re down to just https:// as your scheme.

Host

That’s the technical name, but for all practical purposes, you can think of the host as the domain name you registered, e.g. WittyBlogName.com or in our case, Mediavine.com.

It also includes any sub-domain, such as www., which we use for Mediavine.com and our owned & operated sites such as The Hollywood Gossip.

Path

The path is the main part that we’ll be talking about today, so more on this below.

Query Strings

Google, by default, will index ANY query string it sees. This means that, by default, it sees things like the ?fbclid that Facebook adds to any URL as a different URL. This is because they are in fact different URLs.

We’ll dig deeper into this in a future blog post, and also delve into the use of the URL Parameters tool in Google Search Console. For now, just know that query strings uniquely define URLs and be wary of any tools you use that may add these to your page.

Fragment

As its name suggests, a fragment points to part of a page. Fragments are what powers things such as Jump to Recipe and Table of Contents, by pointing to a specific section of a page.

These are NOT considered separate URLs by Google, so they are also often used by plugins and tools for other tricks.

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How URLs matter for SEO

So how does all of this impact SEO?

In their SEO starter guide, Google offers a similar technical breakdown of what we just provided for URLs, along with additional advice that can basically be boiled down to three points:

  1. Simple URLs. Google gives an example of an unhelpful folder and random numeric page URL vs. a descriptive one, e.g. /article/ten-rarest-baseball-cards.html. Translation: Make URLs easy for people to read/know what they’re clicking on from the URL alone. Very similar to Google’s advice with anchor text.
  2. Use words in URLs. Google wants you to use descriptive words inside your URLs. What’s more descriptive than your keyword or keyphrase? Translation: Make sure you use your keyword inside your URL, but as always, stick to reasonable keyword density and avoid keyword stuffing.
  3. Use a simple directory structure. Folders, or directories in your URL — such as the “articles” in /articles/fun.html — are important but don’t have too many of them. Keep it as flat as possible and make sure the folder is descriptive of what’s inside. As for whether or not to include dates in your folders, we’ll get into that more below.
  4. Provide one version of a URL to reach a document. This is another topic for a separate blog post, but in short, make sure there aren’t multiple URLs that reach the same piece of content. Canonical URL and redirects can help handle this — more future blog post topics!

Use hyphens for word separation

Another big piece of Google advice is to keep a simple URL structure. If you have multiple words in your URL or file names, make sure you use hyphens, not underscores, to separate words. For example, write /seo-guides/url-structure.html instead of /seo_guides/url_structure.html.

If you’re running WordPress, it will automatically convert any spaces to hyphens, which is great! However, when uploading images or other files, make sure you name them with hyphens, not spaces or underscores.

Are URLs a ranking factor?

They are, but not a defining one.

I like to point out that YouTube and Amazon have absolutely terrible URL structures that follow none of Google’s advice (particularly ironic in the former’s case, as Google owns YouTube).

These two household name juggernauts of the online world violate every rule, including not using useful words in URLs. Instead they use random characters and numbers, and guess what? They still rank.

Google even admits in its starter guide that it can learn to parse even the most complex and inadvisable URL structures. But does that mean you shouldn’t care about URLs?

No. You should still do your best, and not just because you’re not Amazon. There’s the human factor involved as well.

URLs are shown to the user in search results, so even if they’re a smaller ranking factor, they’re important for a user who is searching for topics. They help the user decide whether to click to your site in the 1.2 seconds you grab their attention, much like the meta description.

However, if you happen to have a less-than-ideal URL structure, it’s not the end of your site, so think twice before trying to retroactively “fix” this. More often than not, incorrectly attempting to change url structures, such as not properly handling redirects, can cause more harm than good.

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Do dates in URLs matter?

A quick note on the frequently asked question about URL dates. When you select your permalink structure in WordPress, you’ll be presented with several options. In the early blogging days, most publishers opted for the date format, e.g. http://www.domain.com/2020/09/blog-post/.

While the date of a published article is useful to some potential readers, this format is less than ideal. As we mentioned above, you want to keep things short and eliminate additional characters that aren’t search terms, which usually (though not always) includes the month and year.

As far as altering URL structures after the fact, I typically advise against it, as it involves a LOT of redirects. We’ll talk redirects more in future posts in this series, but in short, they are often slow, don’t always pass on full link equity and sacrifice a lot of your social proof.

Changing URLs is not fun. What I wish is that WordPress would come up with a solution to this for future posts you write, because that would be ideal. In our SEO Like a CEO series, you’ll often hear me say to fix things going forward.

Hint, hint: Great plugin idea for someone!

What permalink structure should you use?

I personally always vote for the simplest, which is the “post name.” This has no folder, and is what’s known as a flat URL structure. You can see this in the article you’re reading: mediavine.com/url-structure.

I know Google’s advice is folders, and that useful names are important. If you have different object types, such as we use on Food Fanatic, something like /recipes/recipe-name.html and /videos/video-name.html make a ton of sense and are a great idea.

But if your site is entirely blog articles, adding something like /articles/ doesn’t provide any value; therefore I’d recommend just skipping it.

I have seen people use custom URL structures and including a category to satisfy the Google goal of a folder hierarchy, but again, I wouldn’t stress. Flat, or “post name” structures will allow you to rank just fine and are extremely readable for potential users.

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Does your domain matter?

Yes, it does. Again, we like to err on the shorter side, as chances are your domain is not a keyword. If it is, great job. Having keywords in there will only help with your rankings.

In most cases, extra words are just taking up valuable space. Think back to the keyword density and keyword proximity advice we gave before. You want your keywords to appear as early and as far to the left as possible. Long domains push useful keywords further to the right.

Note: This advice applies only to choosing a NEW domain. If you have an existing one, please don’t rebrand. It’s bad for ad revenue and SEO. So bad that we’ve written multiple articles on why rebranding is a bad idea.

Unless your domain is absolutely terrible, I would rarely recommend stressing about it, let alone changing it.

Keeping it Simple

It’s important to remember that your URL structure is a ranking factor for Google and will have an impact on whether users click through to your articles. As a result, you should keep your URLs as short, simple and readable for humans as possible.

However, please don’t stress and blow up everything you’ve built if you have an established URL structure that doesn’t sound ideal after reading this. Just think about it as you write new articles, or if you set up a new website down the line.

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