SEO

Your website’s URLs can be so much more than just the location where your content can be found online. Depending on how you optimise a web address, it could become an SEO-boosting click-magnet, an aesthetically pleasing symbol for your content, or even a vehicle for carrying valuable data across multiple online places.

This guide covers several tips and approaches to optimise a URL. We’ll begin with an easy method called ‘URL path optimisation’, before moving on to two slightly trickier approaches: link decoration and URL shortening. And finally, we’ll share some tips and best practices to make sure your URLs are fully optimised, from the first character to the last.

What is a URL?

A URL is a string of characters that identifies the location of a resource, such as a webpage or an image, on the internet. The acronym ‘URL’ stands for ‘uniform resource locator’.

Web browsers, such as Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, use URLs to navigate to a resource.

The user can see the URL of the webpage they are visiting in the browser’s address bar. They may have typed or pasted the URL here, but it’s more likely that the URL will have been automatically loaded when the user clicked a link or performed another online interaction.

URLs are made up of several components, some of which are essential, and some optional. These include:

  • Scheme (e.g. http:// or https://)
  • Domain name. This includes the second-level domain, owned by the website (e.g. google, amazon, targetinternet); and the top-level domain (e.g. .com or .co.uk)
  • URL path
  • URL parameters / query string
  • Subdomain (e.g. www. or store.)

You can read all about the components of a URL at the IBM blog.

As this guide will show, each URL component can be fine-tuned in various ways to support marketing objectives.

URL path optimisation

In our opinion, the simplest form of URL optimisation is to improve the part of a URL known as the ‘URL path’.

The URL path is the section of a URL that follows the TLD (top-level domain – e.g. .com or .co.uk). The purpose of the URL path is to describe the content of a webpage in a way that’s useful to humans and search engines.

Here are some examples of URL paths:

  • /shop
  • /blog/how-to-optimise-a-url
  • /about/meet-the-team/eric-the-office-cat

The start of the URL path is marked with a forward slash. Also, forward slashes can be used to break up a URL path into path segments, as shown in our second and third examples.

URL paths are a minor ranking factor for search engines. Optimising them is an easy win, in terms of SEO and website usability.

URL path optimisation Step #1: make sure the path fits the content

The key to creating a search-friendly URL path is to ensure that the path text accurately describes the webpage content. This approach leads to better experiences for search users who base some of their expectations about a webpage on its URL path.

You can improve the accuracy of your URL paths by checking the match between the path and the content before you publish a webpage. For instance, you might decide to change a planned URL path, if you found that the proposed path text mentions a topic that isn’t discussed in the webpage content. In most cases, you will be able to edit the text of the final path segment, or ‘slug’, via your website’s CMS.

Editing the URL paths of pages which have already been published is slightly trickier, as the changes you make might break existing links to the relevant webpage (these could be your own internal links, or backlinks to the page from other websites). For this reason, we suggest you check for relevant links before you edit the URL path of an existing page. If you’re very keen to change the URL path of a page which has existing backlinks, you could preserve the existing links by asking whoever published them to edit the link destination. Alternatively, you could set up a redirect from the existing URL to the revised URL.

URL path optimisation Step #2: optimise content categories

A website’s content categories – e.g. ‘About’, ‘Shop’, ‘Blog’, ‘Services’ – often come at the start of URL paths for pages on that site. They send a strong signal to search engines, and to users, about the purpose of a webpage.

With this in mind, a good way to ensure URL paths are accurate is to optimise the section names used on your website. Here are some tips on how to do that:

  • Choose section titles which are widely used on other websites.
  • Think carefully about whether a new webpage fits within its section before you publish it.
  • Make your section titles action oriented, e.g. ‘help’, ‘contact’, ‘shop’.

URL path optimisation Step #3: when appropriate, use SEO keywords

In some cases, it’s appropriate to target improved search visibility by including SEO keywords in a URL path. So, if you’ve used a target keyword in the content of a webpage, you may benefit from using the same keyword, or a related keyword, in the URL slug.

We’ve phrased this tentatively, because we want to emphasise that you should only include keywords in a URL path when they truly match the content. Webmasters who shoehorn ill-fitting keywords into their URL paths can end up with a high bounce rate on their web pages, leading to SEO harm.

Another point to remember about URL paths and SEO, is that it’s good practice to make URLs easy for people to read and understand. URLs sometimes get shared without any accompanying information – e.g. on social media, when an account shares a link without adding a comment. As a result, URLs which are easy to understand have an increased likelihood of attracting clicks-through from users who are genuinely interested in the linked content. Relevant clicks generally lead to positive user behaviour on-page, which should, hopefully, lead to optimal conversions and SEO signals.

SEO expert Moz has lots of good advice on how to write SEO-friendly URL paths. For instance, Moz recommends that the words in a URL path should be separated uniformly with hyphens, and that upper-case letters should be avoided entirely.

Another of Moz’s recommendations is that it’s best to avoid using so-called ‘URL parameters’ in your URLs – but as we’ll see, this form of ‘link decoration’ can open up valuable strategic opportunities for marketers.

How link decoration powers online tracking and personalised user journeys

Link decoration is a way of using a URL as a vehicle for carrying information from one online place to another.

From a user’s perspective, the only noticeable effect of link decoration should be that some additional characters and/or words are added to the URL they can see in their browser’s address bar. Of course, these extra characters are there for a reason.

Most examples of link decoration fall under one of two categories: dynamic personalisation of online user experience, or tracking user behaviour and/or campaign performance.

In the case of the former category, link decoration is added dynamically, often via Javascript, to the next URL in the sequence. The newly decorated URL can now reflect variables in the user journey, such as the source from which the user was referred to the webpage, which currency they have opted to use, or which items they have loaded into their cart. When the user clicks through to the next step, the variables captured in the link decoration may affect how the website interacts with the user, or what information the webmaster sees in their web analytics. For instance, if a user selects their currency as ‘GBP’ while browsing an online shop, the website could dynamically add a piece of code to the URL to ensure that the correct currency is applied when the user reaches the checkout.

This is one of many examples of how link decoration enables websites to provide a personalised user journey. Crucially, this is achieved without using personally identifiable information (PII) of the user. In light of recent moves by the likes of Apple to block more invasive forms of tracking, such as stealthy uses of IDFAs and third-party cookies, the ability of link decoration to non-invasively process user journey information has made the technology highly relevant for many marketers and online businesses.

Some link decoration has no direct effects on user experience. Instead, it gives the webmaster a way of tracking user behaviour, and of assessing the performance of their website and/or marketing campaigns. This type of link decoration often involves the use of tracking codes, which can be placed within campaign URLs and monitored via web analytics.

URL parameters

Link decoration can be contained within ‘URL parameters’, which form an optional section of a URL known as the ‘query string’. Here’s how a URL which includes URL parameters might look:

https://www.madeupjewellerybrand.com/about?source=instagram&product=earrings

The parameters section of the URL is the part with different text colours. It has the following components:

? – The question mark shows the start of the URL parameters. It’s an appropriate choice of symbol, because the parameters that follow it could all have variable values.

source= / product= – These are examples of what is known as keys. Each one is the name that the website gives to a certain parameter that could be contained within its URLs. Think of keys as the categories of user journey information that we capture with link decoration.

instagram / earrings – These are examples of the values for each parameter. Whereas a key will tell you what category of data has been gathered, these parameter values are your actual findings. Usually a parameter will have multiple possible values. The value that ends up in the URL depends on how the user interacted with the digital user journey – e.g. which social platform did the website acquire that person from, and which type of product did the person research?

& – the ampersand symbol is used as a separator, which marks where one parameter (a key and a value) ends, and another begins. There is no need to place a separator at the end of the URL parameters section of a URL.

There are several ways to implement link decoration in a website’s URLs. Some brands code their own, bespoke interactions between URL parameters, the user journey and web analytics. But perhaps more commonly, websites end up with various types of link decoration added to their URLs automatically, by plug-ins, integrated software and other technologies installed by the webmaster.

UTM codes

One of the simplest ways to start using URL parameters is to equip some of your URLs with UTM – a parameter-tracking technology which was initiated by Urchin, the predecessor of Google Analytics.

A UTM (‘Urchin Traffic Monitor’) is a snippet of code that can be added to a URL in order to track parameters of how users interact with that URL. This broadens the scope of data which the marketer can see in their website analytics.

There are five parameters that can be tracked via UTM, providing the webmaster with insight into each visitor:

  • utm_source – which site was the visitor acquired from? (e.g. utm_source=twitter)
  • utm_medium – which content medium contained the link that the user clicked? (e.g. utm_medium=email)
  • utm_campaign – which specific marketing campaign acquired the visitor? (e.g. utm_campaign=blackfriday)
  • utm_term – in a paid search campaign, identifies the paid search keyword/campaign term (e.g. utm_term=cheap+used+car)
  • utm_content – which type of link did the user click to reach the site? (e.g. utm_content=textlink)

Some marketers also track custom UTM parameters, which require additional setup in Google Analytics.

UTM parameters provide great scope to analyse the effectiveness of different aspects of your marketing campaigns. They slot neatly into the URL parameters section of a URL – just like the regular URL parameters we talked about in the previous section.

How to add UTM codes to links

Any URL that you’ll share with customers or clients could be a good candidate for UTM tracking. For example, if you wanted to track how many users clicked through to your site via a certain marketing campaign, you could add a UTM code with your desired UTM parameters to all of the links used in that campaign. With the UTM code in place, you should then be able to see updated data on the specified parameters in Google Analytics (that’s assuming some users actually click on the campaign links).

If you’re feeling confident about URL parameters and UTM, you could try manually adding UTM parameters to your campaign links. To do this:

  1. Start with the normal URL for the content you will link to ;
  2. Add a question mark at the end of the URL path (skip this step if the link already contains URL parameters);
  3. Add UTM code in the form of URL parameters (e.g. utm_campaign=flashsale). You can add as many parameters as you like to the link.
  4. Use a UTM Validator tool to check your UTM code before you start using the link (optional).

With these additions, your campaign links should return useful, accountable data to your web analytics, whenever a user clicks on them. To find the data, go to the Google Analytics account which is connected to your website, then click ‘Acquisition’ → ‘Campaigns’ → ‘All Campaigns’.

Of course, you may find that the easiest way to add UTM code links is to use a UTM generator that will create the UTM code for you. We recommend the Google Analytics Campaign URL Builder.

Many marketing tools, including Mailchimp and Buffer, add UTMs to links automatically. This is done to help marketers analyse campaigns which have involved the tool, either via the tool’s onboard analytics, or via a third-party application such as Google Analytics.

If you’re not sure whether your marketing tools are already adding UTMs to your campaign links, we suggest you see what you can find under ‘All Campaigns’ in your Google Analytics. The results could provide some useful insights into questions such as which tools are driving the most traffic to your website, or which types of links are users most likely to click on in your marketing emails.

The downsides to link decoration

In our view, the main downside to link decoration is how it can affect the appearance of a URL. Many web users are uncomfortable with websites tracking their activity, and some may decide not to click on a link because of link decoration – whether the user recognises the decoration as a tracking feature, or they simply mistrust this strange collection of characters. Some web users might also remove what they recognise as link decoration from a URL before they share it with their online connections, thus reducing the effectiveness of the link decoration as a tracking mechanism.

Another downside to link decoration is the potential for SEO issues such as page duplication, which can arise when URL parameters cause search engines to treat a single webpage that reacts dynamically to URL parameters as though it were multiple pages with duplicate content.

As is true of most marketing tactics, you’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons of link decoration before use. It’s an imperfect solution, but it does bring some unique opportunities to build dynamic, personalised user journeys, and to track user activity across online places.

Of course, if you’re really concerned about the length of your decorated URLs, you could just shorten them…

URL shorteners: how to make shorter links with better trackability

A URL shortener is a tool that can replace any existing URL with a short alternative, hosted by the shortening service.

Whenever you’ve seen a link that starts with ‘bit.ly/’ or ‘tinyurl.com/’, you can be sure that link has been shortened using a URL shortener.

While there are many URL shorteners out there, most of them have the same basic method for shortening links:

  1. You type your chosen URL into the shortening tool;
  2. The URL shortener creates a shortened link which redirects to your original URL;
  3. You can now use the shortened URL to link people to your content.

Some URL shorteners go further, offering features such as shortened link customisation and link activity tracking.

Here at Target Internet, we’re particularly big fans of Short.io, which has a unique process for shortening URLs via your own domain. An especially impressive feature of the service is that it lets you create expiring short links, which give the impression of scarcity – a powerful psychological marketing tactic.

For many marketers, the purpose of using a link shortener is to make links more attractive, and more clickable. This is especially true in the case of URLs with lots of link decoration, where posting the full link (e.g. on social media) could lead customers to mistrust or misinterpret the URL.

Another reason to use a link shortener is for link tracking. Shortening can make any URL – even one which is unique to a certain recipient – appear generic, which opens up the opportunity to subtly track metrics such as whether or not a certain contact clicked on a campaign link. Some marketers regard this type of tracking as a moral grey area, but there is no denying that it remains a widely used, and highly effective, tool within fields such as PR and sales.

Much like link decoration, URL shortening has some drawbacks. One problem is that many of the best shortened URLs available via each shortening service for a given marketing vertical will already have been claimed. Another issue is that there’s no guarantee against a URL shortener closing down, and therefore compromising its users’ shortened URLs. There are also cases where use of a URL shortener could adversely affect a link’s perceived trustworthiness or a webpage’s search performance. Once again, it’s all a question of weighing up the pros and cons.

URL shorteners and QR codes

If your brand uses QR codes, you might consider using a URL shortener to shorten the destination URL for the linked content.

QR codes represent information in the form of black squares on a white background, in a square grid. The more information the code represents, the more squares there will need to be – which means that the more characters there are in a URL, the busier the QR code will look. 

With this in mind, the benefit of using a shortened URL in your QR codes is clear: the code has fewer characters to represent, which means it can be smaller and simpler.

This is a great approach for generating scannable, aesthetically pleasing QR codes which look and work better than the big, ugly QR codes that go hand-in-hand with long URLs. It’s worth bearing in mind that most URL shortening services will allow you to change the linked URL of a shortened link whenever you like, so you can keep an attractive QR code while changing its destination.

Before you start on anything link decoration or link shortening, nail the basics

HTTPS vs HTTP

Before you start exploring link decoration or link shortening, it’s important to get some basic URL best practices nailed down.

At the start of a URL is the URL scheme, which identifies the protocol that tells browsers how to access the webpage. The two schemes you need to know about are HTTPS, which is currently the global standard, and HTTP, which preceded it.

In just about every scenario imaginable, the best scheme to use is HTTPS, rather than HTTP. This is for the simple reason that HTTPS adds a layer of encryption which is absent in HTTP, meaning HTTPS is fundamentally the more secure and trustworthy of the two.

Key internet authorities including W3C’s Technical Architecture Group have led a largely successful movement to encourage all websites to transition from HTTP to HTTPS. If you haven’t already done so, we recommend that you switch your website from HTTP to HTTPS as soon as you get the chance. 

URL length

URLs should be no more than 2,083 characters in length. If they are any longer, they might not render in all browsers.

Of course, in the interests of user trust and shareability, it’s best to keep your URLs considerably below the limit. And you should never, ever exceed it.

Conclusion

The more you know about URLs, the more you will come to appreciate them as an opportunity to support a wide variety of marketing objectives.

From gathering data on user journeys via URL parameters, to creating better-looking QR codes using link shorteners, we can do much more with URLs than simply tell browsers where to find a webpage.

In our view, choosing the right way to optimise a certain URL is all a question of context and testing. Sure, some instances of optimisation – especially link decoration or URL shortening – will put users off; but in other cases, these approaches will enable unique strategic opportunities while having little or no negative impact on user behaviour. With this in mind, it’s good practice to test new implementations of URL optimisation on a limited audience sample, and review any deviations from average audience behaviours, before rolling out at scale.

A URL is not just a web address; it’s a flexible asset that can relate to many elements of online marketing in lots of different ways. Marketers who pay close attention to their URLs can create benefits for their website, their brand and their audience.