Web marketers have known for years that the words we use in page URLs were factored into the search algorithm. There has always been a debate as to how much of a factor these words contribute, but the general consensus is between a little and not much.
In fact, for years SEOs cautioned against changing the URLs on your site for optimization purposes alone due to the potential loss of link value that happens when you implement a 301 redirect from an old URL to a new one.
That factor has largely diminished over the years as search engines have gotten better at transferring value through those redirects and the (temporary, but hurtful) ranking losses that once happened as a result of those redirects have mostly disappeared.
But still, a 301 redirect itself does cause some loss of value. We don’t know exactly how much, but I would guess that somewhere between 90-95% of the link value is passed to the destination page with 5-10% flying off into neverspace. That may not be a big deal if we are talking about a handful of redirects on a site with thousands of pages. But if you’re talking about site-wide URL changes, you could potentially lose 5-10% of your total incoming link value due to URL changes you have made.
Even a 5% loss can be enough to see your site authority drop, causing a negative impact on your search engine rankings.
URLs Gone Bad
That fear alone has caused many SEOs to caution against changing URLs except in the most extreme circumstances. However, it is possible for URL changes to produce a gain equal to or greater than any loss incurred. This is often true when upgrading URLs from an old crappy looking stream of characters and numbers to something much more organized and readable.
Here is an example of a URL from The Home Depot website circa 2008:
Pretty hard to read, right?
I couldn’t find the same book on the Home Depot website today, but here is a current URL for a similar book:
The new URL uses valuable (key) words that give readers and search engines a better idea as to what the destination page is. That’s what I call a change worth making! Despite the loss Home Depot incurred by implementing a new URL structure (assuming they remembered to add the redirects), I’m sure the new structure provided some valuable gains.
Making URLs Readable
SEOs haven’t always considered URL “usability.” They typically approached it from a keyword perspective. But with today’s algorithms, usability takes front and center stage, which makes even keywords take back stage.
While an argument can be made that the URL doesn’t matter a whole lot to the visitor, crappy URLs can still cause an element of reader discomfort. On the flip side of that, a readable URL can provide readers a significant reinforcement of the messaging.
This is especially true when visitors are scanning search results. Typically, the searcher sees the title of the page, the page URL, maybe some rich snippet data and the page description.
Google gives the searcher that information because they have found that it is relevant information for the searcher to have. Back in 2013, Google tested search results without the URL. Seeing as those results never rolled out globally, we can only assume that the test proved that showing URLs is valuable.
That tells us that the URLs visitors see need to have value! After all, it is a signal. Not just to search engines but to visitors who are contemplating what to click.
Let’s look again at Home Depot’s new URL structure as illustrated above:
Can we produce a better URL? Maybe this:
Which URL gives you the most information?
Obviously the second one. Not only does it tell you the name of the book, but it also tells you what section of the site the book was found in. That can be good information for the searcher to have!
Unfortunately, neither URL is likely to be displayed in full in the search results. There is only room for so many characters available in that space, which means Google has to truncate the URL. You can see how they did that in the image above.
But now, Google is giving us a bit more control over URLs both in desktop results and more recently, by default, in mobile results.
Aligning Breadcrumb Trails with URLs
For some time now, Google has toyed with showing breadcrumb trails rather than URLs in desktop search results. Here is a search result for Amazon’s page for the same book:
Interestingly, the breadcrumb trail in the search result differs from that of the page:
Unfortunately, Google’s version is far less compelling than that on the page.
On April 16, 2016, Google announced they are rolling out changes to how they display these URL/Breadcrumb snippets in the search results on mobile devices. Basically, two specific changes were made:
- The website name to be used instead of the domain name
- The URL structure of the URL as breadcrumbs
As we showed above, Google has already been using a sort of breadcrumb trail instead of the URL in desktop search results when they feel it is warranted. This brings mobile in line with what they have (sometimes) been doing with desktop results.
In the announcement, Google provided a link on proper breadcrumb coding, but the announcement specifically tells us Google is not using the breadcrumb trail as presented on the site but rather they are using the URL structure. I’m not sure why they chose the URL structure over breadcrumb trail, but that means the URL of each page on your site is pretty darn important.
However, if I were to take a guess, I would suggest that Google wants to match breadcrumb structure to the URL structure. Ensuring these two are aligned will likely give your pages a much stronger signal to the site’s content and provide Google with a 100% clear indicator on how the URL crumb should display on mobile devices.
Going back to my made-up Home Depot URL above, notice how it coincidentally coincides with the on-page breadcrumb trail:
That’s a pretty strong signal for Google to use and provides you with increased opportunity to control the message Google displays in the search results.
I’ve always been an advocate of matching URL and breadcrumb structure, but now this becomes almost essential. It’s no longer about adding keywords to your URLs but making sure your URLs align with your navigational structure. And going back further, making sure your navigational structure is user-focused.
As URL and breadcrumb structure are (or should be) derived from the navigation structure, this puts extremely heavy emphasis on the users’ navigational experience. Get that wrong, and the rest won’t matter. Get that right, make sure the following URL and breadcrumb signals align, and you’ve got a bigger opportunity to present your content to your visitors and draw increasingly relevant clicks from the search results.
If you were hesitant to change your URLs for any reason, those reasons virtually disappear now that the URL structure is making its way to prominence in both desktop and mobile searches. URLs are not just a signal of relevance for rankings but a very strong signal of relevance for the searcher on determining if your page is going to meet their search need.
Side Note: Google is also now showing the business name, rather than the domain name, in the URL trail in search results. This is a boon to site branding! While this is currently only being rolled out on mobile, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this on Desktop at some point.
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Stoney deGeyter, Author of The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist and CEO & Founder of Pole Position Marketing, a leading online marketing strategy company helping businesses improve their online presence since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences all over the US, and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and website marketing related articles. If you’re looking to velocitize your web marketing, Stoney and Pole Position Marketing are the crew you need. Follow him at @StoneyD, and @PolePositionMkg.