In 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:
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: