Checklist for Changing Your URL Structure

Change URL StructureIn SEO there are a lot of little things we can tweak to help a site rank better. This includes improving a site’s URL structure by making it more SEO friendly. The problem is, if you do this incorrectly your rankings could drop significantly and it could take a long time to make a full recovery.

Use the checklist below to first make sure it’s worth it to change your URL structure. If you decide it is, the rest of the checklist will help you to make sure you update everything you should. This will help to reduce your ranking drops (or at least the length of time those drops last).

Make Sure You Are Actually Changing to Something Better

Sometimes it is a good idea to change your URL structure, but sometimes you’re better off leaving things alone. Here are some examples of when it might be a good idea:

Switching from a dynamic URL structure to a static URL structure

The problem with a dynamic URL structure (example: www.siteexample.com/page.php?cat=231&prod=55234) is that you can end up with lots of different variations of the URL getting indexed. This can potentially create a huge duplicate content problem and split your link value. Changing your URLs to a static structure will give you one URL for each product or page on your site. This makes things a lot cleaner and helps to avoid splitting your link value between multiple URLs.

Just changing from dynamic to static isn’t enough of a reason to change your URL structure, though. You still need to make sure that you’re changing to URLs that are more descriptive and actually SEO friendly.

Making your URLs more meaningful/SEO friendly

I see a lot of sites with URLs that don’t explain what the page is about at all, even those with static URLs. For example, what does this URL tell you about the page: www.siteexample.com/store/prod1.html

If your answer was “Not much,” you’re right. Sure, you might be able to assume that it’s a product page, but you don’t know anything about the product.

If your site currently uses this kind of structure, it could be worth changing your URLs to make them more SEO friendly and meaningful to your audience. In other words, use some keywords. Use an appropriate keyword phrase in your URL and it will improve your SEO efforts and make the URL more user-friendly for your visitors.

When to leave things alone

Just as there are situations when you should consider making changes, there are also situations when you should think about holding off. For example, if your site is already ranking really well, you may want to leave your URLs alone.

Sure, there are “ideal situations” in SEO where everything is perfectly optimized, but if you already rank well, you could be better off leaving things alone. This is where consulting with a qualified SEO can be extremely valuable since it is a very case-by-case thing.

If you decide you should proceed with changing your URLs, the rest of the checklist items can help you to lessen the duration of any ranking drops you experience.

301 Redirect Old URLs to New URLs

If you’ve done any reading about SEO, you’ve likely heard about 301 redirects. A 301 redirect is what you use to signal the search engines that you have permanently changed the location of a URL.

So if you’re going to change your URL structure, you have to make sure that you put 301s in place to redirect all of the old URLs to the new URLs. Otherwise, you’re going to send all of that previously accumulated link value to pages that give a 404 error and you’ll basically lose any link value those pages had.

Keep in mind that links that are 301ed lose some of their link value. This is one reason why you can almost always expect a drop in rankings when you change your URL structure.

Update XML Sitemap and Resubmit to Webmaster Accounts

Once you’ve updated your URLs and put your 301 redirects in place, you should also update your XML sitemap and resubmit it to the search engines through the various webmaster tools accounts. This alerts the search engines to the changes in the site and says they should come crawl it again.

Doing this can help your site to get re-indexed faster, which can help your rankings come back faster. The sooner the search engines realize you’ve made a permanent change the better!

Update All Internal Links

Probably the most time-consuming task of updating URL structure is making sure that all of the internal links in your site are updated to point to the new URLs.

You may be thinking, “I set up 301 redirects to take care of this. Why should I update all of my internal links as well?” It’s a good question. Here are a couple of reasons why you should do it

  • Maintain all your internal link value. Remember what I said before about links that are 301ed losing some value? There isn’t a lot you can do about external pages linking to you, but you can retain all of the internal link value if you update the links.
  • Avoid visitor confusion. If a visitor comes to your site with a slow Internet connection, it’ll be even slower when they click on a link that just redirects them. If this happens, they will likely just leave your site.

When you’re updating your internal links you should start with your navigation, footer links, and HTML sitemap. From there you’ll need to go through and clean up all of your contextual links.

Google Webmaster Tools has a tool that can help with this. Just go to ‘Your site on the Web’ and then ‘Internal links’ and you’ll see a page like this:

Google Webmaster Tools - Internal Links

From here you can enter the URL you want to find links to and the tool will give you a list of the pages that have links to that URL. You might not find everything this way, but it is a great place to start.

Is It Worth It?

There are plenty of situations where cleaning up a site’s URL structure can really help it rank better. But before you go through all the trouble, take some time to evaluate your site’s structure to determine if it is really going to be worth it. Personally, I’d look at everything else I could change before I completely change a site’s URL structure.

If your site already ranks well and has an okay URL structure, you may want to leave it alone. Also keep in mind that almost any time you make URL changes, you’re going to see a drop in rankings. It’s hard to say how long this will last, because even different pages on the same site can be affected more than others.

Once you have made the above changes you should track your rankings frequently. Also keep an eye on search results to see when the search engines show your updated URL. This is a good indicator that things are starting to iron themselves out.

If you’d like to learn more about good URL structure, here are a few videos to watch from Matt Cutts at Google Webmaster Help:

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26 Comments

  1. Andy @ FirstFound says

    Great advice, thanks. I’ll print it out and pass it round the office!

    Good job on pointing out the inevitable drop, although I find a good sitemap and coherent internal linkings lessen the blow a bit.

    • Dan Patterson says

      They definitely help. It’s the sites that don’t update their sitemap and internal links that seem to have the drop last the longest. Though this can change even from page to page within the same site!

  2. Nate Moller says

    Hey Dan,

    Thanks for the reminders and insight on “Friendly URLs”, including the video from Matt Cutts.

    I agree that the biggest issue I’ve seen with restructuring URLS is the internal link updating, especially if you’ve worked hard to build a lot of different internal links to specific pages and then decide to change them.

    Appreciate the info.

    Nate

  3. Dana Lookadoo says

    Dan, excellent checklist.

    Regarding XML sitemaps, I found it more helpful to update XML sitemap twice – once to resubmit via Webmaster Tools but with the old URL structure in place so the spiders crawl the old links and learn of the 301 redirects. Then I change the

    • Dana Lookadoo says

      OOPS! accidentally hit submit before I was done.

      … Then I change the XML sitemap to reflect the new URLs after a crawl so they see the new URLs.

      Any thoughts on this?

      • Dan Patterson says

        I haven’t done it that way personally, but it might not be a bad idea if your XML sitemap isn’t being crawled very often already. How many tests have you done on this?

  4. Darryl Taylor says

    Thanks for the advice, on a related note do you think it’s a good idea to use subdomains in site design, for example I can see the blog here is in a subfolder but we currently run our blog on a blog subdomain, I’m not sure if this is hurting the rankings of the blog/site or if it doesn’t really make a difference. Would be interested to hear your opinion!

  5. Patrick Murphy says

    Very good points. But well done on your summary: Personally, I’d look at everything else I could change before I completely change a site’s URL structure.

    It is very rare to see someone come out with a final view.

    What is your view on ramming keywords into the url?

    Thanks

    Patrick

  6. Martijn Couprie says

    You could also use Xenu for checking internal links. Make sure you 301 the old URLs to the new URLs first than check the List of redirected URLs in the Xenu report.

  7. aubattery says

    I hate the word “blog” in my URL architecture because a few years back I was heavily spammed by spambots. After changing the word ‘blog’ to something else, I received lesser spams. Therefore, I’ll never use that word for again for all my blogs.

  8. Steve says

    Sorry Dan, but it doesn’t really tell me what I was after. I’ve looked at other Q&A places about this but you’re site looks the more promising to answer my question.
    Having set the ‘home’ page as http://www.mydomain and redirected the http://mydomain as a 301 to stop splitting the ‘inlinks’ , duplicate content etc; I was wondering whether or not I should change the back ‘home’ links from the other pages to the http://www.mydomain or leave them as they are which at the moment are ‘index’ linked owing to the html editor I’m using? Whether or not the search engines would then see this link as http://www.mydomain.com/index rather than the full URL?
    Any thoughts would be appreciated

  9. Javier Vasquez says

    Dan… Nothing is worse than changing our URLs to find out that what you have put in place is actually worse than what you had before.

    My suggestion is to always start day one with SEO in mind and make sure that your URLs are SEO friendly.

  10. William says

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article. This information is really useful for the people new to SEO and a good reminder to veterans too. Too often, the URL structure is ignored in SEO. You bring up some excellent points.

  11. William says

    Thanks for the very interesting article. This information is really useful for the people who are new to SEO. It is also helpful and a good reminder to veterans too. Too often, the URL structure is ignored in SEO. You bring up some excellent points.

  12. joseph ruso says

    please advise…..i had a guy in egypt making backlinks on high PR blogs back in january right before google made the update……i did not think is was a bad idea at the time because he didn't spam anybody…….he  did nice work but the problem was that all these blogs had a ton of outgoing text links and google looked at it like a link farm……i think the only thing that saved me was i had years of quality links pryor……anyway,after month's of quality link's again i found myself getting close to where i wanted to be ranked again……then someone told me that if i change the url's by adding the word buy to the url's that were affected and than just use 301 redirects that everything would look different to google and i would get my past rankings back…..well after i did that everything got pushed back furthur and now i cant seem to get any movement no matter what i do…….so all the url's that are on page 2 of google now have just been sitting there for month's…. the same for the rest of the url's,if page 3 page 4   ect……everything is just sitting there,no going backward or forward……..now someone told me i should just put everything back to how it was originally…..what do you advise….thanks

  13. seo outsourcing india says

    Excellent Post. Thanks for sharing such a insightful information regarding URL structrure Because URL Plays vital role to boost up our Ranking in Search Engine.

  14. Bryan Hunter says

    Recently I was advised to change my URLs (about 5,000 pages) by applying the canonical tag. Two days later my site saw an 80% drop in organic search traffic. Overnight I literally lost months and months of hard work building my PR. It's three weeks later and i've yet to see any improvement.
    I've submitted the new sitemap and checked for crawl errors. Any idea how long it might take to see an improvement? Does every page have to start to build it's PR from scratch or will Google eventually use my overall site PR to flow down to the individual pages? Any help appreciated!

  15. Simon says

    Hi i keep reading contradictory comments on meta tags and would like to ask this question. is my site title seo friendly ?

    Title is:
    Oil Paintings – By: Art-Tech-uk (Simon Chilcott)

    some say its fine and others say i should remove the () and the : from it.

    Kind Regards
    Simon

  16. Lyka Winnett says

    Great SEO tips for improving URL Structure. Converting URLs from dynamic to static and adding descriptive keywords on your URLs are very important strategies to make your URLs both user and search engine friendly.

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