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A coworker and I are locked in a debate over the value of SEO keywords in the URL of a page. She wants to change all the filenames of the HTML pages of a fencing company so they look like residential-home-chicago.html, contact-chicago-contractor.html, and so on. She is convinced that because Google highlights keywords in URLs in search results, that means that putting keywords here is more valuable.

My position is that these do not improve SEO, since Google doesn't seem to give keywords in the URL any more weight than keywords in the body of the page, and might even give them less weight. In the meantime, they make it harder for me to find the pages I want when its time to edit them, and the site as a whole looks cheap and spammy.

Google's own SEO guide suggests to me that yes, keywords in URLs are useful, but not superior, and that they are more useful for human readability than search engine rankings.

I'm looking for authoritative sources that support either position, not blog articles from SEO optimization companies trying to promote themselves.

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If the customer is only targeting local businesses and people then you want to look up local rankings factors, since its very different. –  bybe Apr 15 '13 at 18:25
    
I did find this page which ranks the relative importance of different parts of the page, but it doesn't provide a source for its numbers, so I'm taking them with a grain of salt. –  Blazemonger Apr 15 '13 at 20:34
    
Having keyword in URL is great when you have quality links to your site otherwise it does not worth having a keyword in URL. –  user2434 Oct 18 '13 at 8:04
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4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Google doesn't put much (if any) ranking weight directly on the keywords that are in the URL right now. Any effects on SEO with or without them are caused indirectly through user interaction and usability.

From a better usability standpoint:

  • Keywords in URLs can increase the clickthrough rate (CTR) from the SERPs. Check out these two search results for "Stack Exchange" on Google. The first uses keywords in the URL and gets an extra instance of the keywords bolded in the listing. Google SERP for 'stack exchange'
  • When URLs are pasted into forums and the like, keywords in the URL let users know what to expect and increase interaction there as well. Here is a screenshot of two links to the same meta discussion from here, one with keyword url, one without. The one with the keywords is more attractive and informative. Screenshot of links to meta discussion
  • When urls have keywords, but no numeric ids, urls can be both informative, memorable enough for users to recall, and short enough for users to type. Wikipedia has the gold standard in this regard. The URL for their page about Stack Overflow is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stack_Overflow. (It could drop the wiki/ and maybe even the en. part to be even better. Also, they should use dashes rather than underscores because Google doesn't handle the underscores properly.)

Keywords in URLs can however, make usability worse in some ways:

  • It makes some URLs long. Long URLs are more likely to get truncated in emails and by CMS systems. Because of this, you should have the numeric id in the front where your software can still see it if the last part of the URL is chopped off.
  • If the keywords are not used as database keys, there can be many URLs that will access the same content. You will need to implement "URL canonicalization" to choose the one that you want search engines to index.
  • Users may not be picky about upper and lower case when they type in URLs, but your server software should be. You should have a canonical case (probably all lower case) and redirect to that proper case as part of URL canonicalization.
  • If the URL isn't all ASCII, the international characters will be URL encoded when sent to the server. Some software will show the URLs to users with ugly encoded characters. http://www.dmoz.org/World/Japanese/%E5%81%A5%E5%BA%B7/ vs http://www.dmoz.org/World/Japanese/健康/

Keywords in URLs may also contribute to SEO spam penalties for keyword stuffing and thin content. When Google's Panda and Penguin algorithms launched, several sites that were hit had nothing but URLs that were specifically targeted at keyword variations. Avoid having too many pages on your site that have nothing but targeted high traffic key phrases as the URLs. For example, a site with a set of URLs like:

  • /best-blue-widgets
  • /widgets-in-blue
  • /buy-blue-widgets
  • /blue-widgets-for-sale

is going to be seen by Google as unlikely to have high quality content. In such a case it would be far better to have pages such as:

  • /blue-widgets
  • /article-2345-uses-of-blue-widgets-for-widget-detection
  • /article-8373-blue-widget-buying-guide
  • /article-9873-how-many-blue-widgets-is-enough-for-one-circus

So my advice is:

  • Use keywords in urls
  • Separate words with dashes
  • Keep the entire URL lower case
  • Use one, two, or three words with no numeric id in the URL when possible
  • Use a numeric id near the front, with a URL slug after it for longer URLs.
  • Implement URL canonicalization to 301 redirect to the best form of each URL (first choice), or use the rel canonical meta tag (second choice).
  • Don't just target keywords in URLs, pick URLs that are short, descriptive, and memorable when possible; but avoid keyword stuffing.
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Bolding the search words doesn't necessarily mean higher ranking from those search words -- it's just something Google does for usability. –  Blazemonger Apr 15 '13 at 15:43
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It generally causes higher click through rate when you get more bolding. Google uses CTR as one of the signals that can move a URL up or down in the listing. Any ranking effects are certainly indirect. –  Stephen Ostermiller Apr 15 '13 at 15:46
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My real concern is that the filenames she's choosing are nonsense keyword clusters. about-xyz-fencing.html makes sense, especially if that's the h1 text anyway, but repair-storm-emergency.html looks spammy to me. –  Blazemonger Apr 15 '13 at 15:56
    
Good point, I added a section to my answer about keyword URLs and spam, especially related to Google's Panda algorithm. –  Stephen Ostermiller Apr 15 '13 at 16:13
    
For search, you could use breadcrumb markup to have a readable URL line even if you use parameters / IDs. FWIW googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.ch/2008/09/… is also still very relevant. –  John Mueller May 21 at 8:48
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Keywords in URL's (Not Domains since Google's EMD Update) are used to give signals to the relevance of the page to that of what people are searching for.

Google used many methods to establish the relevancy of the page, such as:

  • SEO Friendly URLS
  • Meta Description
  • Title Description
  • On page headers
  • Alt Tags
  • Text Content
  • Page Titles
  • Off Page SEO (Links, Mentions, Social Media)

What is believed is Google has a cap with on Page Signals, so if you have too many signals on page SEO it can work in reverse effect, for example too many signals in text content, headers etc etc. So a URL is a signal, nothing more... it either helps or it doesn't since Google can establish the page relevancy without it.

You should treat URLS as increasing your click though rates, it gives trust-ability as well as indication to what people are clicking on the ending page.

So if people are searching for tips and hints on cooking a pie a URL with /101-tips-and-hints-on-how-to-cook-the-perfect-pie/ will generally have a better click though rate when backlinking than /pie/ and again it can give Google one of many signals that your page is about what you say it... but it doesn't mean you can't rank the page without friendly urls. But personally I treat SEO friendly URLS as increasing click though, nothing more.

So to answer your question... If the page has enough signals as in content, pictures, description, header, title then ya you wouldn't need keywords in the URL /contact-us/ would be enough because Google can establish that their site is in Chicago though using citations, and off page SEO.. /contact-us-chicago/ the use of Chicago on the end wouldn't increase click rate, nor does it provide any additional useful information to the user, so I personally wouldn't use this format.

If the customer's business is in Chicago for example they should be able to rank for residential home without the Chicago in the URL or even the Header for that matter because Google now uses local ranking though I would recommend the use of it in the Title as I believe meta, and title are the most important factors, after all this is what appears in the search results. This would only work if they are on Google Maps, Google places, and other local directories. But what you want to research is citations, and tell your customer SEO has changed in recent years, especially in the last 2 years.

I'm looking for authoritative sources that support either position, not blog articles from SEO optimization companies trying to promote themselves.

Most authoritative SEO sites will inform you that Keywords in URL are a must, some however will say its a signal. It's important to note that most SEO articles are theorizing since Google doesn't release the exact SEO page factors.

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From what I've seen, they are very useful and great for SEO. This is because they are highly visible and Google favors things very visible to the user. You should not overdo it either, otherwise it will be treated as any other keyword stuffing.

Note that this is not the same as keywords in the domain name which are still good (just not as much as before). This is because the domain name is global to a site but URLs are specific to each page which is much more inline with PageRank. They also appear in search results and highlighted which gives more visibility to results.

It is impossible to precisely say which keyword position is exactly the best one but keywords in the URL are worth similarly to keywords in a heading tag, so I would recommend using them as you can and in a way that will help users too.

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links, sources... ? –  Blazemonger Apr 15 '13 at 14:26
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General Knownledge :P –  bybe Apr 15 '13 at 14:29
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If a user put a link pointing to a website with URL as anchor, keywords (which appear in anchor) are also useful for SEO. –  Zistoloen Apr 15 '13 at 14:38
    
@Zistoloen Yes, but who does that as a matter of routine? –  Blazemonger Apr 15 '13 at 15:36
    
@Blazemonger: All experienced SEO skilled workers. –  Zistoloen Apr 15 '13 at 15:42
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From a personal experience, so you have to take this information with some criticism :

keywords in the url are one of the most important thing in google ranking, especially in niche keywords / search request. If you are in a niche, with not too much google results, a good url will almost always put you on the first page of results, if not better.

It goes with general good SEO practices of course. Read http://static.googleusercontent.com/external_content/untrusted_dlcp/www.google.com/fr//webmasters/docs/search-engine-optimization-starter-guide.pdf

But keep in mind, that the objective for Google, is officially, to give the user the best answer possible. The only thing you should worry about when managing a website/blog is the user experience and the content quality you offer. Content is king like they say. One day they might decide that 'URL over-Optimisation' is considered as keyword spam and might give you a penalty for this...that is the beauty of Google and their absolute domination.

If you are searching for 100% trustworthy science on Google SEO, just go to the Google Search HQ and ask them, because only Google knows exactly what's up, but they won't answer and I am sure most of them (Google search engineers) don't really know of much weight a particular parameter is VS another one (there are millions of variables in Google algo).

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