Human Readable, Semantic URLs Will Help Your SEO

by Gradiva Couzin on February 10, 2010

If you’re building a new site or redesigning one, we think you should switch to meaningful, human readable (aka “semantic”) URLs.  But don’t do it just because we think you should.  Do it because the research backs us up.

If you’re launching a new website, or getting started on a redesign that will require changes to your page URLs, you may be considering the benefits of human-readable, semantic URLs.  We are proponents of these URLs, which we think make good common sense.  But if you need more than common sense to justify an increased level of effort for implementing human-readable URLs, here’s some hard data to back it up:

Semantic URLs Help Search Engine Ranks

  • The consensus in the SEO industry is that keywords in page URLs are a factor in Google’s ranking algorithm. In our experience, sitewide semantic URLs gives a modest, across-the-boards ranking lift. Don’t expect to jump from third page to #1; but a lift from #11 to #6 is feasible.
  • Page URLs are sometimes used as the linking text from other websites; this translates into more keywords in the linking text pointing to your site, which plays a role in the ranking algorithm
  • Google’s Matt Cutts has confirmed that it is helpful to have keywords in the URL – as long as it’s done in a sensible way. (See http://searchengineland.com/googles-matt-cutts-on-keywords-in-the-url-16976)

Semantic URLs Increase Clickthrough Rates

Not only can human-readable, meaningful, keyword-rich URLs improve search rankings, they may increase your clickthrough rates.  Here are salient research highlights:

  • In one eye-tracking study, business professionals viewing a search engine listing with a long URL ended up clicking on the URL immediately after it 2.5 times as often as those viewing a short URL. (1)
  • In another eye-tracking study, when searchers scan through search engine listings, 13-33% of time is spent looking at URLs. (2)
  • In yet another eye-tracking study, searchers spend 30% of their time reading the listing title, 43% of the time reading the listing description, and 21% of their time reading the URL. (3)
  • There was “overwhelming endorsement”  when participants where asked the question: “When I’m searching the Web, I often look at the URL of each search result to help me decide if the page will be useful.” (on a 7-point scale, 6.4 was the average).  (2)

There are, of course, a few caveats on the effect of semantic URLs on clickthrough rates:

  • The effect is greater for navigational searches, and lower for informational searches.  Navigational searches are people who already know exactly what they are looking for (for example, they might type “flickr.com” into the Google search box), and they are probably most interested in your domain name, not so much the individual filenames.
  • The effect may be diminished if Google is showing breadcrumbs, rather than a URL, in your site snippets.

We’re pleased that common sense and scientific research are in alignment on semantic URLs. We typically would not recommend changing page URLs for the sole purpose of SEO improvements, but if you’re making changes to your website anyway, we hope you’ll take advantage of this rare SEO “no brainer.”

FOOTNOTES

(1) Marketing Sherpa (2008).  Search Marketing Benchmark Guide for 2008 (www.marketingsherpa.com/exs/Search08Excerpt.pdf)

(2) Cutrell, E., & Guan, Z. (2007). Eye tracking in MSN Search: Investigating snippet length, target position and task types (research.microsoft.com/apps/pubs/default.aspx?id=70395)

(3) Granka, L., Joachims, T., & Gay, G. (2004). Eye-tracking analysis of user behavior in WWW search. Proceedings of the 27th Annual International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval (pp. 478-479). New York: ACM Press. (http://www.cs.cornell.edu/People/tj/publications/granka_etal_04a.pdf)

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