Thumbnail Image

Date Posted: Sep 24 2016

Tags: SEO, Usability, Semantics

Are your URLs letting your website down?

Sometimes the most basic parts of a website that are the parts most overlooked.

URLs are key to website functionality: without them your users wouldn’t be able to access or share your content very easily.
This is a vital element of your website and should definitely not be overlooked.
In this article we will examine what it takes to make your URLs stand out, not only to users but also to search engine crawlers.


Research has shown us that shorter URLs gain a higher click-through rate (CTR) than longer URLs: up to 34% higher CTR in some case studies.

So, if your URL looks a little something like this:

You may well be missing out on valuable traffic that you could have boosted with a shorter URL such as:

Matt Cutts, former head of Google’s Webspam team, once recommended that URLs should contain no more than 3-5 words; and stated that anything beyond that is discounted from your Google ranking.

If you can clearly describe the contents of your page within your URL in less than 5 words, you are on the right track to a having an optimal URL.


If you were to read your URLs would you clearly understand the contents of the pages they link to, without reading the meta description or a preview of the content contained?

URLs such as these are far too common. All that I can understand by looking at the URL is that the content is most likely in English. I am a web developer so I understand what lang=en refers to; you can’t assume, however, that your end users will have the same understanding.

The URL below is a more suitable example; it is quite clear that the content is in English and contains a list of the blogger’s top 10 scary movies for 2016.

Make sure your URL clearly describes what the content of your page refers to.


Using a descriptive URL provides you with a prime opportunity to give your user a first impression of the content contained on the page. It is, therefore, a great place to put the title of your article or the name of the product/service you are selling on the page.

Social media shares like the following are a perfect example of why this is important:

Image example of how descriptive URLs look on Facebook


You have probably spent hours, maybe even days formulating the best keywords to include in your blog post; the most striking header with that key phrase everyone is searching for to guarantee traffic that viewers will flock to.
Then why are they not in your URL?!
This Google search is a prime example why they should be:

Image of a Google search showing the SEO importance of URL keywords

All of the top search results have one thing in common: they all contain keywords from my search phrase in their URLs. Four pages deep into my search and I eventually found a website that did not have my keywords in their URL.


Another reason for using descriptive URLs is that they look significantly more trustworthy than URLs that do not describe their content.

Example 1:

This is a trustworthy looking link. It is a shop, and you can clearly see from the subfolder that the link is pointing towards where to buy scoobysnacks.

Example 2:

Most PHP developers would recognise this URL as a PHP page with multiple parameters, but to your average user this is gibberish.
For many users, this type of URL could look suspicious or even a threat.

Example 3:

This may seem like an extreme example, but unfortunately there are plenty of websites out there with URLs just like this. In my own opinion as a web developer this URL looks fairly unpleasant to click; I can’t imagine how scary looking this URL may appear to your average user.


We know for certain that shorter and more descriptive URLs improve your SEO; and using keywords in URLs clearly influences search results.
This could lead you to believe that it would be a great idea to start stuffing in keywords, as in the following example:

Do not do this! Search engine algorithms are now highly intelligent and will detect this behaviour. Years ago this was very common, and many developers attempted to scam the search engine algorithms in order to rank higher.

It does not work anymore: Google will not rank you any higher for keyword stuffing and Bing actively penalises websites for doing so.

In addition, do you really think this would improve your users’ experience?

While it is important to consider SEO in both design and development, always consider your users first. Stuffing a URL full of keywords makes no improvement to your website’s usability; if anything you will be making your website less user friendly by having longer, archaic URLs for your users to interpret.


The best practice for separating words in a URL is to use hyphens.

Google claims that hyphens are preferable because their crawlers understand hyphens to be word separators. Underscores, however, are interpreted differently by their crawlers to the way we typically use and interpret them as humans.

Using spaces is also not recommended as they will be replaced with the encoded version: %20. This can result in a very messy looking URL.



Unless you feel it improves readability there is no need to include stop words such as “and, a, be, the, why, how” etc.

Could be shortened to:

Stop words, however, hold very little significance in terms of SEO. So, if you feel that including stop words will improve usability and make your content more descriptive continue to use them by all means; but keep in mind that a shorter URL is optimal for both CTR and Google ranking.


URL case sensitivity can be important depending on the type of webserver handling your URLs. A good majority of webservers are UNIX/LINUX servers, and by default they are case sensitive.

It is recommended to assume case sensitivity.

For example, you may have the following URL:

However, depending on your webservers configuration the URL below may point to a different location:

In my opinion, using lowercase URLs causes less confusion and uppercase URLs should be avoided.


Canonicalization of your pages to a preferred URL is highly recommended if you have multiple URLs pointing to the same content; this will prevent search engines from penalising you for duplicate content.
For more information on canonical URLs check out this article:
How to design seo friendly pagination


Your website URLs may fall into some of the above scenarios; and you may now be considering changing your URLs to improve usability, SEO, or to represent your website more clearly and as a trusted source of content.

You may be thinking “…but I need all of these parameters for my website to function. How could I possibly remove them?”

Don’t worry; it isn’t as hard as it sounds. There are many options available to do this without losing the any of the parameters that your website relies on to function correctly.

Check out my detailed guide Clean URL Rewrites Using Apache on how to accomplish this with Apache Web Server. I will also be uploading detailed guides shortly, explaining how to also do this with NGINX and Micrsoft-ILS. So, stay tuned or subscribe to get updates on new content.

Author Avatar


Owner of

Codin is a self taught web developer based in London, UK.
Over the years he has dedicated a lot of time to helping new developers, becoming a well known moderator at Team Treehouse