Why Changing Your URL Structure Is Bad for SEO

04 November 2020

SEO
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Whether an SEO client of ours is planning a site migration, a simple redesign or just generally looking for ways to improve their organic search performance - one area we often get asked about is URL structures.

What makes the perfect URL for SEO? Are our URLs too long? Too short? Should we change the URL structure completely?

The last of those is perhaps the most common query we get in relation to URLs - as businesses move to a new website with a new shiny CMS that can often lead to a widespread change in the URL structure, without the client even knowing about it.

But does changing URL structure make any actual difference to your performance, your traffic and ultimately the revenue and leads you get through your website?

The SEO Impact of Changing URLs

The short answer is very much YES - any significant changes to URLs and URL structures across your website can have a significant impact on how visible you are on Google and ultimately affect your traffic.

In our experience, in the vast majority of cases, your URL structure should remain broadly the same, even if you are moving to a new backend system, undergoing a redesign or whatever other minor change is happening to your website.

Later on in this article, we will address the rare occasions when it IS a good idea to consider a URL structure change - but the general advice we would give is that unless you have a REALLY good reason to change, you should stick with what you have.

Why? 

Google does not see and understand web pages the way humans do. Search engines have come a long way in the last decade and no doubt they will one day advance to the point where they are able to do this, but for the most part, they are still algorithms which can’t see what we see. This is why technical SEO is a crucial part of any SEO strategy. 

So as a result, one way search engines identify pages on your website and how they are different from each other is from their unique URLs. When these are changed, even individually or in the case of a 301 redirect, it will take time (sometimes weeks or months) for Google to recrawl those pages and start to understand the relationship between the old URL and the new URL.

301 redirects can massively aid this process, and if mapped out correctly during a migration then any loss of visibility can be avoided. But as many SEO professionals and web developers will tell you - this doesn’t always go to plan. 

So how do we know what ‘good’ looks like when it comes to URLs for SEO?

SEO Best Practice For URLs

As a starting point - there is no universally accepted best format out there which all websites should follow in terms of URL structure - Google has provided best practice guidelines but these can be adhered to in a variety of ways.

The most important aspects to consider if you are coming up with a URL structure from scratch or overhauling your current structure are:

  • Length - The URL should be short and user-friendly, i.e. easy to type. While search engines will stop parsing a URL after 1,000 characters, it is best practice to restrict your URLs to 115 characters.
  • Human readable - The URL should accurately describe the content of the page and contain the focus keyword. Our golden rule is that you should know the content of a page simply by looking at the URL
  • Avoid parameters - Try to avoid using excessive parameters in URLs and opt for static URLs instead. If you do need to use parameters, use the URL Parameters Tool in Search Console to tell Google how you want them to handle parameters on the website.
  • Hyphens over underscores - Hyphens should always be used to separate words in URLs as search engines are unable to correctly parse characters like underscores. 

When you SHOULDN’T change URL Structure

There are a number of situations in which a business might consider making a change to URL structure - usually, this will relate to a fundamental change to their website or their product/service offering.

When going through a site redesign or migration is the most common of these - and many businesses will be tempted to change the URL structure alongside a whole host of other changes.

You definitely shouldn’t change your URLs if the reason for doing so is just simply an aesthetic one, or even to try and make the URL more relevant towards a certain keyword.

For example, one company we worked with that operates in the home improvement sector were redesigning their website and wanted to change one of their URLs from https://www.clientsite.co.uk/traditional-doors to https://www.clientsite.co.uk/classic-doors because they believed it was a better fit for their brand. 

Apart from the fact that more people search for ‘traditional doors’ than ‘classic doors’ that would have led to a process where Google would have to recrawl and understand the content of that page. Apply that to dozens of similar changes they wanted to make during the redesign and that could have led to a steep drop in rankings, as these were key product pages which had decent levels of visibility and links pointing to them.

This potentially could have taken months to recover from, even if 301 redirects were set up correctly. Less visibility, less traffic and ultimately less revenue for the business.

Thankfully, on this occasion, the company saw sense and stuck with their original URL structure.

The bottom line is - unless you have a VERY good reason to change your URL structures, then don’t.

When you SHOULD change URL structure

There are some isolated occasions when changing your URL structure will ultimately benefit your SEO performance.

One of the most common reasons for doing so is when the current structure your site has in place uses dynamically generated URLs which don’t give any idea to the user or Google as to what content sits on that page.

Another business we were working with previously had a situation where all of their pages had URLs to the effect of https://www.clientsite.com/Default.aspx?catid=10279.

Every single URL on this site had this same structure - no indication whatsoever as to what a user may find on that page. 

So in that situation, we recommended (particularly as the whole site structure was being overhauled anyway) that they moved to a more logical, human-readable structure. 

They had built up a decent level of visibility already, and while there was some short term pain initially, the move eventually paid off:

graph showing drop in traffic during url structure change

Common URL Structure Mistakes

There are some things that you must avoid when creating or changing your URL structure, and here are a few of the biggest mistakes webmasters make. 

Changing URLs without 301 Redirects

If you read the above and decided a URL change is 100% the one thing you need to do for your website, then we can’t stress enough the importance of properly 301 redirecting the old pages to the new ones. If you don’t do this, your rankings are going to drop. 

HTTP vs HTTPS and WWW vs Non-WWW

One problem that many websites face is not properly redirecting all the variants of the site to a single one. In some cases, sites can have both HTTP and HTTPs versions, as well as WWW and non WWW versions. This is then 4 different versions of a site which Google will see as separate sites:

http://www.clientsite.co.uk 

http://clientsite.co.uk 

https://www.clientsite.co.uk

https://clientsite.co.uk

You need to choose the main version of your site and 301 redirect all others to it. If both versions of the sites are live, then you may have duplicate content impacting your SEO efforts!

Lack of Keywords

There are two sides to every argument and in this case, there are those who think using keywords in URLs has its benefit, and there are those who don’t. But think of it like this, every time you launch a page on your domain you want it to have a purpose. Whether that’s a transactional or informational purpose, the reason for your content's existence should be clear.

You want your pages to be discovered by the right people (and crawlers) so this is why you should incorporate some keyword research and include a relevant term in the URL that will accurately describe what the page is about. 

Conclusion

The URL structure of your website is incredibly important, so don’t neglect it - after all, you really do only have one chance to set it up correctly. Once you structure things properly, just follow the best practices we recommended above and think about length, avoid keyword stuffing and avoid using excessive parameters. 

Should you feel a URL structure change is the right move for your business or want more information on an SEO strategy for your business, get in touch with Loud Mouth Media’s team of SEO experts today!