What's the ranking impact of a Web page's URL structure?
One of the most hotly debated topics in the search industry is the importance of a Web page's URL structure (the Web address) for ranking purposes. Some SEO (define) experts feel placing keywords in the URL is vitally important; a Web page simply won't rank well without keywords in the URL. This group often cites SERPs (define) with keywords highlighted as hard evidence for its viewpoint.
On the flip side, other SEO experts believe keywords in the URL don't make or break search engine positions. Yet this group recognizes how important keywords are from a usability perspective: both search engines' and site visitors'. This group doesn't give much emphasis to keyword-rich URLs for determining relevancy.
I wanted to explore this topic because how search engines handle the wide variety of URL structures is constantly evolving.
URL Structure as Interface
The people who least understand issues with URL structure and SEO are the very people who create them: Web developers, programmers, and software developers. It seems the most important item to them is getting the database to function without any consideration for the interface. Therein lies the problem. Too few IT and technical staff have any education, training, and experience in user-centered design (UCD).
After keyword research, the first component in creating a Web site is to come up with the site's information architecture. Remember, information architecture and interface are two different things. How information is grouped on a Web page and overall on a Web site is information architecture. One way to remember this is information architecture equals grouping and categorization.
In other words, information architecture is how a Web site's information is organized. Before anyone creates interface prototypes, information architecture must be determined. If interface designers (often IT staff, to the detriment of the Web site) are brought in too early in the Web development and SEO process, the information architecture might be compromised.
After Web site owners determine how information should be categorized or grouped on a site, the interface talent should work on initial prototypes. Keywords, general Web copy, graphic images, multimedia files, and URL structure are all part of this interface. An effective interface communicates keyword focus to both search engines and site visitors. For this reason I classify Web site usability as an intermediate-level SEO skill, one that few advanced SEO professionals possess.
Dynamic URLs and SEO
It's pointless to optimize a Web page without giving search engines easy access to that page's content. Navigation schemes and URL structures often act as a stop sign to search engine indexing.
URL structure can be a confusing topic. For example, people tend to assume a dynamic URL contains funky characters (e.g., "?," "=," "&"), as in "http://www.site.com/products.asp?product_no=25," as opposed to "http://www.site.com/hikingboots.html."
At first glance, it might seem the first URL is dynamic and the second one is static. However, a static-looking URL can be database-driven, and the dynamic-looking URL can actually be a static URL.
In truth, search engines don't wish to crawl Web sites with too many parameters in the URL. Search engine software engineers have a considerable amount of search data. They recognize URL patterns that are potentially problematic. Content management systems often generate problematic URLs.
Additionally, search engines limit the number of characters they'll crawl in a URL. This is partially due to known problems in URL structures and partially to Web site usability. Go to any SERP. Look at URL structures. Which is easiest for you, the searcher, to remember? Static-looking, shorter URLs are usually the easiest to remember.
Information Architecture of the URL
Perhaps the most striking observation I've made in my years of training companies is how IT staff and Web developers ignore URL structure as an important element of a Web page's interface. The typical statement I hear is, "Our site is database-driven. We don't have an information architecture."
But a database-driven Web site still communicates information architecture to both search engines and end users through the interface.
I performed a search usability analysis on a large commerce site recently. The main problem with the site's interface was product pages were only made available through a site search engine. Immediately, I knew the site had problems with search engine visibility because the commercial Web search engines don't want search results in their search results. It's a bad user experience for searchers. Additionally, the URL structure has too many parameters, resulting in a large number of characters in the URL.
The result? Because this database-driven site practically orphaned important product pages through the URL structure, search engine spiders didn't access this content easily.
Even database-driven sites have an information architecture. For example, what does the following URL communicate: "http://www.site.com/videos/flash/2006/running.swf"?
You can immediately see you're looking at a Flash video file about running that was either created or posted in 2006. It looks like the site might have a video repository, and maybe it has other video file formats than Flash. What I just described is how information is organized -- an information architecture.
What does this have to do with SEO? If related items are grouped together and cross-linked well, keyword focus is communicated to search engines and site visitors. If the interface uses important keyword phrases in navigation labels, headings, URLs, and so forth (in other words, if the interface supports a site's information architecture), the interface also communicates keyword focus. A page's linkage properties also become more keyword focused.
A long time ago, I read on some black-hat Web site that one of the authors made a bold statement about "poor" white-hat SEO professionals. I have no idea why the author made the assumption that white-hat practices (such as Web site usability and search-friendly interface design) aren't a growing and profitable industry. Don't discount interface design as a part of the SEO process. Personally, I find it delivers the highest ROI (define) over time.
Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.
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Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.
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