The case for Friendly URLs

Posted at May 5, 2011

Classic research into human memory tells us that the average amount of objects a person can remember is anywhere from 5 to 9.  How does this translate to Website addresses? If you’ve ever listened to a radio commercial or an announcement from the church podium, and tried to commit a long Website address to memory, you probably know how difficult it can be.

Most content management systems (CMS) will automatically create an address for your Web pages.  Typically these addressees are not pretty, nor are they memorable.  That’s because the CMS is putting all of the identifying numbers and paramaters for your page right there, into the address bar.  Great for computers, not so great for humans with a finite memory bucket.

We call those “dirty URLs”.

The case for Friendly URLs

Most modern CMS systems have managed to address this problem through URL rewriting, or what is commonly known as “Friendly URLs” or Vanity URLs.  A Friendly URL tool can turn this:

http://www.myexample.org/content/pageView.php?view=1&utm_source=1AWER34129u27d

into something like this:

http://www.myexample.org/about-us

The benefits of doing this are many:

  1. The Friendly URL is easier to remember, which is key for promotions and marketing.
  2. The Friendly URL is more secure, since it does not expose any of the technical aspects of your Website’s structure.
  3. Placing keywords in the URL will have a very small positive impact in your search rankings.  Maybe.
  4. When search engines index your page, they will [bold] any of the keywords from your page that exist in the URL.
  5. Friendly URLs make your site more usable, especially if you follow a pattern on how you name your pages.  For example if I look at your site and I like the things I find on the /sermons-easter and the /sermons-fathers-day pages, then I can probably guess that Christmas stuff lives at /sermons-christmas.

One myth to dispell: Friendly URLs do NOT boost the ranking of your page on Google just because they’re shorter.  Similarly, “dirty URLs” (those with extra characters and longer strings) don’t harm your search rankings either.

Note: Friendly URL tools are not the same thing as URL shortening services.  You’ll normally run across these when using Twitter or Facebook, since the character limits are so tight.  In a tweet, every letter counts so services like bit.ly and tinyurl.com help to shrink your URL into smaller replacements.

Friendly URLs are not a replacement for good navigation

Sometimes we get questions about putting Friendly URLs into navigation menus. This is never a bad practice, yet it doesn’t yield too much benefit other than the “vanity” of seeing your Friendly URL appear the same way, everywhere. We still strongly encourage all Website owners to have a well-crafted, usable plan for your navigation menus

Remember that URLs are normally only used for entrance pages on your site (that is, they only are used when the person is first hitting your site).  Once a user arrives at your site, they will rely on your navigation menus and your in-site search box to find their way around.

If you have any “sharing” or “email a friend” features on your pages, then you should make sure that these buttons do reflect your Friendly URLs.

Are there any benefits to using Dirty URLs?

There actually are some benefits to having long or “dirty” URLs.  For example, these longer addresses are more unique, harder to accidentally duplicate, and they are more portable.  For example, think about the last time you copied a link from Evite or Google Maps.  It was probably 3 or 4 lines long!  Almost impossible to remember easily, but it allows the recipient to click on the link and exactly reconstruct the page you were looking at when you sent it to them.

Friendly URLs can also be tricky to manage in an organization where you have many people editing content in different parts of the Website.  For example, two ministries in a church might both have a page called “About our ministry”.  Since Friendly URLs must be unique, they can’t both use the same URL!  A better idea would be for the site-wide administrator to assign more descriptive URLs like this:

ourchurch.org/about-mens-ministry
ourchurch.org/about-womens-ministry

How to Create Friendly URLs

If your site management tool doesn’t have a way to create Friendly URLs, there may be a way to buy or download a tool that does this after-market.  Typically these are called “URL rewriters” or “mod rewriters”, and they require technical expertise to configure and manage.

A better option for non-technical users would be to move your site to a content management system with Friendly URLs built-in.  If you’re working with an outside designer, ask him/her how they will handle URLs on your site.

More sophisticated Friendly URL management tools (such as the ones built into every SiteOrganic site) allow for both adminsitrators as well as content owners to create and manage their Friendly URLs.  Other nice features to look for:

  • Create a report of all Friendly URLs used through the entire site
  • Allow multiple Friendly URLs to be created for each page
  • Ensure that Friendly URLs still function even when multiple domain names are pointing to the same site
  • Test Friendly URLs on mobile devices, since client-side redirects generally do not work as well for phones and tablets
  • Offer the ability to put Friendly URLs into navigation menus, or use third-party URLs (or even third-party Website links) when necessary
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