We use them every day, but for most people, if you ask them what does a URL stand for, they’re not going to know. Heck, they may not even know what it is! URL is short for Uniform Resource Locator, and they are the backbone of the internet. Without them, our way of browsing and accessing websites wouldn’t exist.
In this article, we’ll explore the importance of choosing the right URL structure and dive into various aspects of URLs, including reserved characters that should never be used in the URL and overall best practices on creating a valid URL.
1. URL Capitalization, Uppercase, Lowercase & CamelCase
While domain names are not case-sensitive, depending on the web server, URLs are case-sensitive. So “example.com/page” and “example.com/Page” can lead to different content. To maintain consistency and avoid confusion, it’s recommended to use lowercase letters for all characters in your URLs. When you stick to lowercase, you ensure that users, search engines, and web servers interpret your URLs consistently and help keep the risk of “404 Not Found” errors to a minimum.
In 2023, most web developers and server admins have taken steps to serve only one interpretation. However, in years past, especially when it came to Unix vs Windows servers, different capitalization led to a nightmare. Google and other search engines still treat uppercase and lowercase characters differently in URLs.
As an SEO Company, we strongly recommend keeping everything in lowercase, and by doing this consistently, you can consolidate your SEO efforts. Remember that a URL with a mix of uppercase and lowercase characters can be perceived as two different URLs, potentially diluting your SEO authority and ranking potential.
2. What is a Permalink?
A permalink, short for “permanent link,” is a URL that points to a specific piece of web content, such as an article, blog post, or product page. These links are designed to be stable over time, even if the content’s location or structure changes. Permalinks offer several advantages, particularly in content management systems like WordPress. For example, instead of having one long URL, you can keep the overall title of the article long but reduce the number of characters in the URL or even remove what we call “stop words” like as, the, is, at, which, and so on.
We used a permalink here on this article. Instead of going with the default “understanding-urls-permalinks-and-special-characters-best-practices-for-web-address-structure” we dropped it down to just “url-structure-best-practices“. The essence of the URL is still there, but it has been greatly condensed so it is easier to read.
Permalinks significantly contribute to the effectiveness of SEO. Stable, unchanging URLs are highly valued by search engines and, when coupled with backlinks, can greatly enhance your SEO efforts. By using permalinks, you’re assisting search engines in comprehending the layout and hierarchy of your site. Moreover, when others reference your content, they’re more likely to use these permanent links, thereby boosting your site’s credibility and standing. Furthermore, when others make references to your content, they are more inclined to utilize these permanent links, thereby elevating your website’s credibility and reputation. To sum it up, permalinks go beyond being a mere convenience; they represent a powerful tool for maintaining content consistency and optimizing search engine performance.
3. Can I Use Periods in URLs?
Periods, or dots in URLs, are one of those things that technically could be used in a URL, but it can create problems because usually they are used to denote file extensions, such as “.html”, “.doc”, “.jpg” or “.php.” Using periods in URLs may lead to confusion for web servers and browsers. To avoid these issues, it’s best to avoid using periods in URLs whenever possible. Instead, use hyphens or underscores to separate words or phrases in your URLs. For example, “my-website.com/about-us/” is a cleaner and more user-friendly URL than “my-website.com/about.us.”
We have worked with clients that have replaced the period in the URL with an asterisk, and while it’s not a pretty URL, it is safe to do so. Another method would be to use URL encoding and replace the period with %2E in your URL structure. For instance, “my-website.com/file%2Epdf” ensures that the period is interpreted as part of the URL rather than a file extension. This approach helps maintain consistency and ensures your URLs are correctly processed by web servers and browsers, reducing the risk of errors.
As a general rule, avoid putting periods or dots in your URL unless you use it as part of a file name.
4. What To Use Instead of Spaces in URLs
Spaces are not allowed in URLs and can lead to broken links and issues with web browsers and servers. To address this challenge, replace spaces with hyphens. Some people suggest using underscores, but this can add to a bad user experience if the URL is underlined, making it hard to determine if it is an underline, an underscore, or a space.
If you prefer to keep spaces for readability, use URL encoding, where spaces are replaced with %20. For example, “my-website.com/my%20page” indicates a space between “my” and “page.” This URL encoding ensures that spaces are correctly interpreted and processed in web addresses.
5. Which Is Better In URL Structures – Dashes vs Underscores
When crafting URLs, it’s common to use either dashes or underscores to separate words or phrases within the address. Both serve the same basic function of enhancing readability, but there are considerations to keep in mind. Dashes are more common and widely accepted in URLs. They are favored because search engines treat them as word separators, making your content more accessible to users and search engine crawlers.
Underscores can be interpreted by search engines to combine a word, so instead of “my-seo-optimized-page”, where you would get bonus SEO points for having keywords in your URL, they would read it as “myseooptimizedpage” which gets no bonus score.
As mentioned previously, underscores can sometimes be misinterpreted when someone links to the URL and there is an underline. Often times, visually, it is hard to tell if the link is a space with an underline, or if it’s an underscore. We always advise people to use dashes for better user-friendliness and SEO. For instance, “my-website-page” is preferable to “my_website_page” for a cleaner and more search engine-friendly URL.
6. Recommended Length of URLs
The length of your URLs can significantly impact user experience and search engine optimization. Keeping URLs concise and descriptive is key. Ideal URLs are typically under 60 characters, but up to 128 characters is often accepted as the normal. Short URLs may also improve the chances of your links being shared and clicked on in social media and other contexts.
The actual length of a URL can be up to 2048 characters, but please, for the love of God, don’t do that! Short and to-the-point URLs are more memorable and enhance both the user experience and your SEO efforts.
7. Backslashes, Folders, and Path Depth
Organizing your website’s content with a logical folder structure is beneficial for user navigation and SEO. By using backslashes and folders in your URLs, you can create a clear hierarchy of content. However, it’s essential to be mindful of URL depth. In general, shorter paths are preferred, as overly deep URLs can make your content less accessible and harder for search engines to crawl.
A well-organized folder structure can make your website more user-friendly, helping visitors easily find the information they need. It also helps search engines understand the relationship between different pages and the overall structure of your site. By maintaining a balance between a logical folder structure and shallow URL depth, you ensure that your content is both accessible and well-optimized for search engines.
8. Weird Characters in the URL: ()<>,.%;\!@^#=
In general, your URL structure should only contain letters and numbers. These are what we would consider valid characters for a URL. The software that powers the servers for web hosting interprets characters differently, and even in browsers, they mean different things.
Comas and brackets should be considered reserved characters and strictly avoided in any URL. The percent sign, hash symbol, and exclamation mark all take on different roles when it comes to the browsing experience. In general, any URL with %, &, !, +, =, or @ usually has to do with URL requests, gathering of information via query string or session cookies, or passing of variables between pages. None of them should be part of a normal URL structure, however they are considered valid url characters when it comes to viewing websites due to how they interact with the browser software.
Let’s Wrap This Up!
In the digital landscape, URLs are the gateway to online content. Understanding the intricacies of URLs, from choosing the right case and handling special characters to optimizing structure and length, is paramount for a successful online presence. Following best practices ensures not only a seamless user experience but also improved search engine rankings.
In summary, lowercase letters in URLs provide consistency and contribute to better SEO performance. Permalinks offer stability, making content easily shareable and promoting search engine authority. Avoiding periods and using hyphens or URL encoding can prevent issues related to file extensions. Replacing spaces with hyphens, underscores, or URL encoding maintains URL integrity. Dashes are the preferred choice for separating words, enhancing user-friendliness, and SEO.
Keeping URLs short and descriptive improves user experience and SEO, and a logical folder structure in URLs simplifies content organization. Striking a balance between structure and depth ensures accessibility and visibility.
By implementing these best practices, you can create user-friendly, search-engine-optimized URLs that enhance your website’s discoverability and usability. If you ever want to get overwhelmed with technical information the Google Webmaster Guidelines on URL Structure goes pretty in-depth on SEO best practices and URL optimization.
Remember that the internet is constantly evolving, so staying up to date with the latest SEO and web development trends is essential for maintaining an effective and user-friendly web presence. If you don’t feel like reading their stuff and prefer having a technical resource to help you navigate things, give us a call at 402-522-6468 or fill out our contact form online.