Understanding SEO Friendly URL Syntax Practices

SEO Friendly URL SyntaxPoor URL structure is a frequent SEO issue, one that can impair rankings, keep pages out of the search engine indexes, and suck ranking authority from your other pages or even the entire websites.

Some content management systems bake poor URL structures right into their websites. Lax rules can be a culprit, for example, not encoding spaces or special characters.

Meanwhile, some CMS platforms devise URLs using illegal characters that should not appear in addresses. Others generate multiple URLs for pages, creating duplicate content.

While it is true that search engines go to great lengths to read and index even the worst URLs, attention to URL management and optimization will provide both SEO and usability advantages.

Good URL Structure

A few years ago, Dr. Peter J. Meyers put together a cheat sheet on the anatomy of a URL. It’s a good one to keep handy.

 SEOmoz SEO Syntax Cheetsheet

Look at this URL:  http://www.mobilesmart.com/phones/android/samsung-galaxy-s3

  • It is easy to read and understand. If I saw this address pasted into a blog or forum, I would likely click on it.
  • It is SEO optimized with breadcrumb style keywords. Search engines look for keywords in URLs; it’s a known ranking factor. This layout, going from general to specific, is ideal for enterprise SEO.
  • The URL includes its own anchor text. If this address were pasted into a blog or other web page as a link, that link would possess well-optimized anchor text.

Old style dynamic addresses are legal and acceptable, though they have drawbacks.

  • They tend to be longer and difficult to read because they contain both parameter names plus values.
  • Pairing parameter names with values adds extra words. This may dilute the SEO value derived from keywords within the URLs.
  • This type of address may contain information better transmitted outside of the URL. A user ID, session ID, sort code, print code and many other possible parameters could create duplicate content, security or other issues.

Diagnosing URL Issues

To find URL based issues:

  1. Check for errors and warnings then determine if URLs are the culprit.
  2. Audit all URLs for proper syntax.

To check for errors, begin with Google and Bing webmaster tool reports. Look for duplicate content then examine the webpage addresses themselves and their locations. Numerous third-party SEO tools can locate SEO issues as well.

Canonical issues, parameters that do not change page content, loose adherence to coding standards, or any number of reasons will create duplicate content.

Options for dealing with duplicate content include:

  • Reconfigure the content management platform to generate one consistent URL for each page of content.
  • 301 redirect duplicate URLs to the correct version.
  • Add canonical tags to webpages that direct search engines to group duplicate content and combine their ranking signals.
  • Configure URL parameters in webmaster tools and direct search engines to ignore any parameters that cause duplicate content.

I worked with a newspaper that used unique numerical identifiers, outside of parameters, to serve articles as webpages. It did not matter what the URL contained, as long as the identifier was somewhere in the address. Unfortunately, the writing of link hooks into templates was inconsistent, resulting in thousands upon thousands of duplicate content pages. We had to pour through each template, rewrite each link hook as an SEO friendly URL, then catalog all the legacy URLs and 301-redirect them to the new optimized addresses.

When auditing URL syntax, I prefer to export every webpage address into a spreadsheet or database. If you’re thinking about using Google site: queries, don’t bother as many of the issues you will look for do not appear in search results.

Search For Reserved & Unsafe Characters

Reserved Characters

Reserved URL Characters

Each character has a specific use. Should they appear, determine if they are used properly, should be encoded, or if the URL needs reconfiguration.

Unsafe Characters

Unsafe URL Characters

Encode unsafe characters unless used for a specific purpose. The % symbol does not require encoding when used to encode a character. The # symbol does not require encoding when used to create an anchor tag.

Miscellaneous Characters

Miscellaneous URL Characters

Strictly speaking, these characters do not require encoding. In reality, many CMS platforms will encode these automatically. If you want links that contain these characters to remain consistent when shared from website to website, it’s a safe bet to encode these.

Search For The Pound Symbol, #

Search engines ignore the # and everything after it in a URL. If using the #, make sure the webpage appears as you want it crawled and indexed when the # and everything that follows is removed. If the # changes content you want indexed, you will need to find a different URL structure. For example,

  • /celebrities.html#bill-clinton
  • /celebrities.html#bette-davis
  • /celebrities.html#deadmau5

Based on these webpage addresses, let’s assume the webpages are all different. This will be a problem because search engines will index only /celebrities.html.

A better URL would be /celebrities/deadmau5 or /celebrities/bill-clinton.

Search For Underscores, _

Underscores, while legal, are problematic for SEO. It’s an issue search engines have always dealt with but never solved. Search engines see underscores as connectors. To separate words, use dashes.

So, in practical terms, while hello-dolly is hello dolly, hello_dolly is hello_dolly.

Always uses dashes, -, to separate words.

Search For Mixed Case

URLs, in general, are case-sensitive (with the exception of machine names). Mixed case URLs can be a source of duplicate content. These are not the same URLs,

  • http://example.com/Hello-Dolly
  • http://example.com/hello-dolly

The easiest way to deal with mixed case URLs is to have your website automatically rewrite all URLs to lower case. With this one change, you never have to worry if the search engines are dealing with it automatically or not.

Another great reason to rewrite all URLs to lower case is it will simplify any case sensitive SEO and analytics reports. That alone is pure gold.

Check Your CMS Platform’s Settings

A major clothing retailer I worked with uses a popular retail CMS for enterprise. When this client came onboard, it had some of the nastiest URLs I’d ever seen. I wanted to blame the CMS, except other retailers using the same platform had gorgeous webpage addresses.

In our CMS audit, we found that the client left the optimized URL field blank, leaving the CMS to default to non-optimized, sketchy addresses.

Creating Optimized URLs

How you get from your present URL structure to an SEO optimized one depends on your content management system.

  • In WordPress the administrator select the permalink structure, define and create category slugs. Writers can edit the slug that will become an article or page URL (if the slug is part of the permalink structure).
  • In some CMS programs you can create almost any URL structure you want by placing links into templates. You just include the correct page identifier and pull from accompanying variables (ex. http://domain.com/{article_category}/{article_id}/{article_slug}).
  • Your developer may have to create dynamic URL rewrites.

To find the best path for your business, speak with your Web developer or CMS vendor.

Meet The Minimum Syntax Standard

Not all websites can optimize their URLs; some CMS platforms will not support it. However, no website should use illegal URLs. If you cannot optimize, make certain that you at least meet the standard.

Further Reading

Image credit: SEOmoz Anatomy of a URL

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: operates Schmitz Marketing, an Internet Marketing consultancy helping brands succeed at Inbound Marketing, Social Media and SEO. You can read more from Tom at Hitchhiker's Guide to Traffic.

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  • https://twitter.com/olegko Oleg Korneitchouk

    Most comprehensive post on dynamic v static urls. Thanks for writing it up.

    One point on underscores, search engines aren’t that confused by them anymore. If you currently underscores instead of dashes, it probably not worth your time and rankings to switch over to dashes. However, if you are starting fresh, always choose dashes over underscores. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQcSFsQyct8

  • Deboti Chowdhury

    These information is going to help me a lot with my work.

  • ScottyMack

    If given the option of having a URL as:


    which are you recommending?

  • http://twitter.com/keshabraj Keshab Raj Adhikari

    I think you mix little for _ and -
    It should be like this..

    So, in practical terms, while hello-dolly is hello and dolly (2 different keywords)
    hello_dolly is hello dolly. ( a single keyword)

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    “Mixed case URLs can be a source of duplicate content.”

    I actually just found this issue on a client’s site. I was digging through their analytics and noticed that a lot of pages show a pretty significant drop in traffic at the same time, but their overall traffic was going up. How could that happen? Turns out a bunch of pages had been created with uppercase letters in the URL (older pages were all lowercase) so it was being recognized as a new page. The traffic was getting split between the two pages!

  • http://twitter.com/forestsoftware John Mitchell

    @Oleg, the Google webmaster guidelines at http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=76329 says “We recommend that you use hyphens (-) instead of underscores (_) in your URLs.” and something that makes me wince everytime is when I see people that don’t follow “The URL http://www.example.com/green-dress.html is much more useful to us than http://www.example.com/greendress.html. ” (on the same page).

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    The shortest URL that communicates unique aboutness is what users/searchers prefer. And URLs are labels. I would suggest working with an information architect to come up with a clean, consistent labeling system.

  • ScottyMack

    I don’t really need a “information architect.” Any decent shopping cart platform allows you to set up a consistent experience throughout. I was merely asking in terms of SEO benefit whether having product URLs with the category directory in front of their URL would provide any SEO benefit versus leaving the product without the category in the URL.

    I think SEO’s are the only people on the planet who really look at URL’s, so looking at it from a “user’s experience” is worthy of more than an eye roll. The vast majority of the end customers I speak with have no clue what a URL is. Heck they can’t even find the address bar!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kennyfbrmuscleboy Kenny Fabre


    pretty comprehensive lesson, I got to learn some new symbols I could use to this for the seo friendly urls


  • http://twitter.com/Jehochman Jonathan Hochman

    Thank you for the article and the good advice. The name of the features to ask for when buying or adding plugins to a CMS are “clean urls” and “permalinks”. “Clean” means urls with no parameters and no file extensions. This makes urls portable from one CMS to another so you don’t need to change them when you upgrade Administrator editable permalinks allow setting an optimized url, and make it easy to retain the same url.

  • ScottyMack

    I’m sorry if you took my comment the wrong way. I’m sure URL’s are very important to you. I was reacting to the statement that they are what “users/searchers prefer.” I would bet that not even one out of a hundred people could tell you the URL of something they clicked on ten seconds after they did it, regardless of how perfectly constructed and concise the URL was. The end user is looking for information and paying attention to little else. If they remember the main domain name it is a major victory.

    My question was asked from an SEO perspective to see if there were opinions about whether including the category in the URL would have a benefit in your search rankings for either that category keyword or for the product due to LSI.

    I’m quite sure that you have seen your share of nightmare URLs from poorly made shopping carts. Until a few years ago, you had to do some serious programming on your own to get a user-friendly URL. Now, all of the top carts allow you to create your own URL’s and really good ones (BigCommerce comes to mind, for instance) allow you to tweak a general store setting that formats ALL page URL’s throughout the website in a consistent manner, much like you can do with WordPress.

  • http://www.kaushalam.com/search-engine-optimization.html Kaushalam

    URL is first things to start making entire website SEO friendly. Optimizing it properly will help all pages to be crawled and easily indexed by Google. Many times, having all the areas good enough but not having a simple and static url cause search engine bot to not spider the pages.

  • http://www.inkjam.org/ Sandipan

    Do these tips apply to both Bing and Google?

  • infatex

    Nice tips, thanks for the suggestion.


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