Friday, September 16, 2011

Shortening URLs - Where SEO and Taxonomy Collide

Here's a question that seems to come up frequently, about shortening URLs for SEO…the answer isn't always the same,and there's usually a conflict between the SEO strategy and the overall information classification (taxonomy) design - so here's a thought process I've been through to help evaluate the approach for answering.
  • Question:

    (Note the actual client details have been anonymized to protect the innocent.)

    "Our URL strategy has been to use page titles as the end of URLs. So, the end of the URL for this item...

    http://www.[yoursite].com/Research/[Research Category]/Studies/[Date]/Evaluating-the-Effectiveness-of-[Primary Keyphrase]


    ...matches the page title exactly ("Evaluating the Effectiveness of [Primary Keyphrase]")

    Question is, is there any reason not to shorten the URLs when we create the items?

    So, of instead of...

    http://www.[yoursite].com/Research/[Research Category]/Studies/[Date]/Evaluating-the-Effectiveness-of-[Primary Keyphrase]


    we might do...

    http://www.[yoursite].com/Research/[Research Subject]/Studies/2011/evaluating-[Primary Keyphrase]


    My understanding was that there was SEO value in using the actual page titles and that it was good to maintain a consistent URL structure. But does shortening URLs as I proposed above hurt us? Many of our URLs are very long, and it seems like that could be a liability for other reasons (more likely to get cut-off, less friendly on social-networking sites, etc.)."

  • Answer:

    The very short answer to the question regarding shortening long URLs at this particular site (which is a very content-intensive, large site) is:
    "No, shortening URLs like that doesn't hurt you, unless in doing so you confuse the user or search engines". So it's a "depends if" answer – but if you methodically walk through an impact analysis, the answer should be pretty clear.

  1. What's the purpose of this page, who's the audience?

    The purpose and intended audience drive the core keyword emphasis.


    This particular page isn't entirely about the subject "evaluating the effectiveness of popular [Primary Keyphrase]" – rather, it's a landing page to convert readers (to sign up and download the real white paper).

    This page isn't either about "evaluating" at all – it's about the actual effectiveness, the outcomes, the study, the results. Therefore, a keyword that should definitely be used more frequently in the page copy, plus in the tags and URL, is "effectiveness" or "outcome". The word "popular" isn't actually accurate or useful in this context – the text speaks to "widely adopted", the reasons for which may not have anything to do with "popularity" in the social sense. A broad study of [Primary Keyphrase] will obviously include those most utilized, unless there actually is some kind of "popularity" angle or perhaps the study is actually of more niche programs.

  2. What's the primary topic, and its contextual relevance with respect to the site navigation?

    The URLs, links and tags that support a page need to support the overall navigation structure and hierarchical topic scheme (i.e. taxonomy, or ontology) and lexicon of the site


    The topic seems to be a "downloadable study of the effectiveness of most widely used [Primary Keyphrase]" – and as a "study", it rightly lives in the research section with a [Date] attribute. The word "studies" is a bit confusing, since the particular article is actually tagged a "white paper" in one place, yet categorized under "Study" in the faceted search navigation.

    The fact that it's a "downloadable study" ought to be dealt with from an SEO perspective at a higher level, i.e. helping users find "all downloadable studies" – so the truly relevant semantic theme of this page that should be optimized is "effectiveness (or outcomes) of [Primary Keyphrase], as evidenced by a [Date] [Research Category] study". This semantic theme should be optimized in the text, and also in the tags and URL.

    Note also that in reviewing various keyword combinations using the Google keyword search tool, the "[Primary Keyphrase]" (and its variants) are the only one that seem to get appreciable search traffic – so optimizing with many additional descriptors really isn't necessary from a competitive search results positioning perspective.

  3. Is the URL simply too long or unmanageable, and can it actually be changed without disrupting the site design or configuration?

    For a large, multi-level site, changing URLs and folder names can be difficult, especially if care isn't taken to stay true to the taxonomy and use 301-redirects for changes


    The URL is very long, at least for users to type in (especially on mobile devices). The few instances of this link shared on the Internet is being done with URL shorteners, so that helps the viewer of the link – but doesn't help the "sharer" (though this link doesn't seem to be getting shared very much, which may be in some way related to the fact that it's somewhat hard to share).

    It appears the last node of the URL can be changed relatively easily with the CMS; though the hierarchical nodes preceding probably cannot be changed easily without disrupting the site's overall taxonomy design.

Therefore, with the above considerations, the URL is probably most effectively and efficiently rewritten as:

"http://www.[yoursite].com/Research/[Research Category]/Studies/[Date]/[Primary Keyphrase]-outcomes"


Note all the broad and narrow keywords that truly describe this content are represented:

- research
- [research category]
- study/studies
- [Primary Keyphrase]
- outcomes

Regarding the broader question of whether ALL long URLs should attempt to be shortened

We've just determined that this particular URL could be shortened a little, mainly for semantic reasons – but this level of shortening won't buy very much here in what seems to be a relatively non-competitive search topic.

Some other URLs should probably be REALLY shortened, if the intent of the site owner is that the page should be heavily marketed, shared, and the page's topic is a very primary, current and competitive keyword. For example, if [Yoursite.com] had been very focused on selling their "[Keyphrase] Diagnostic" tool, the advice would be to shorten the URL from its current taxonomy-driven long form, to a short and sweet:

"http://www.[yoursite].com/[Keyphrase]-Tool"


If this is the case for particular URLs, that need highly-converting sales and marketing exposure, then there do exist technical mechanisms to "rewrite" the page URLs (outside of the CMS structure) so that they're much shorter and easier to digest.