Let’s take an example of a movie site. So a well structured set of URLs for this site can be:

  • Movie page - example.com/movies/the-matrix
  • Review for movie - example.com/movies/the-matrix/reviews
  • Trailers for movie - example.com/movies/the-matrix/trailers
  • Specific trailer for movie - example.com/movies/the-matrix/trailers/trailer1

where it’s possible to navigate the resource even by directly deleting/appending resource name seamlessly.

For SEO purpose I read somewhere that for two given pages, Google will prefer the page which have search query up in the URL hierarchy among other things. So for the given 2 URLs and the query "the matrix trailer"

example.com/movies/the-matrix/trailers
example.org/trailers/the-matrix/    `  

Google might prefer the second URL as it has the keyword "trailer" at first level comparing to first URL which has "trailer" at 3rd level (a resource deeper in URL hierarchy may be less important).

If it is correct, one may be tempted to create URL hierarchy somewhat like

  • Movie page - example.com/movies/the-matrix
  • Review for movie - example.com/reviews/the-matrix/
  • Trailers for movie - example.com/trailers/the-matrix/
  • Specific trailer for movie - example.com/trailers/the-matrix/trailer1

which will break the seamless hierarchy.

My questions are:

  • Is it true that resource deeper in URL hierarchy is tend to be less important when comparing to URLs of other site?
  • Is sacrificing meaningful, seamless hierarchy worth for this SEO optimization?
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    If you are going to build URLs for SEO, then the domain name, including the subdomain is also important. Therefore, subdomains such as the-matrix.site.com/the-matrix/trailer will have slightly better SEO than than site.com/the-matrix/trailer assuming all other content is identical. SEO is insanely complex and constantly changing. My general advice is to either go full-tilt with SEO or to focus on meaningful semantics because meaningful semantics are well rewarded by Google. Of course, content is king, so this all assumes that you are spending enough time on quality content. – hunterhogan Jan 3 '15 at 14:03
up vote 29 down vote accepted

I disagree with the comment that SEO is extremely complex. Actually, it is common sense stuff. There is no magic, voodoo, special formula, incarnations, specific sequence of buttons and switches, etc. You do not need the voodoo priestess Bloody Mary to come to your house or office. How search engines work is very simple and only a handful of techniques that are well documented in research papers (having little or nothing to do with search) are applied to most algorithms. The largest SEO gyrations are where search engines decide that something is a good idea and in reality, it is not. For example, the notion of keyword exact match domains deserve special weighting that makes it stand out. That was foolish right from the start. Had the keywords had been weighted naturally as they are most everywhere else, we could have avoided that silliness.

Having said that.

Do not complicate things. Think simple.

The notion that a sub-domain performs better as in the comment cannot be counted upon. The only advantage is adding one or two keywords within the URL which is weighted very lightly these days due to the aforementioned weighting of exact domains. You have to contend with the fact that the sub-domain would have to be populated with content as a full site and optimized in of itself in order to have any effect at all. Far too much work for such little gain. As well, it is too much risk.

Now on to your question:

The reason why, as you mentioned, Google will prefer the page which have search query up in the URL hierarchy, can be explained in how Google and most search engines makes query matches. Let us use your example.

To begin:

  • Google weighs keywords from left to right with some exception.
  • Google weighs known keyword phrases more heavily.
  • Google weighs URI keyword phrases/clusters separated by a slash [/] from left to right.
  • Google weighs keywords used more frequently overall less than keywords that are more specific.
  • Google weighs keyword modifiers more heavily.
  • Google weighs keywords based upon popularity trends.
  • Google will remove all special (non-alpha-numeric) characters when weighing keywords.

Using your example, /the-matrix/trailers/

Google sees the URI as the matrix trailers. The use of the, a stop word, would normally be discarded as having little or no value, however, since it is part a known phrase The Matrix, the keywords are taken together as a phrase and will weigh higher than they would separately. The use of trailer would be seen in past search history and linguistics analysis as a modifier to the phrase The Matrix and would weigh higher than the phrase itself. This would also be true of the matrix reviews and other similar situations.

Also, consider search history and SERP link CTRs. When someone searches for the matrix, they are not interested in The Matrix per se' but something about The Matrix. They are looking for additional information. Generally, a search for the matrix may result in CTR on SERP links that give additional clues. For example, the URI could be /the-matrix/reviews/, /the-matrix/ratings/, /the-matrix/trailer/, /the-matrix/cast/, etc. Each page will experience different SERP CTRs over a period of time. This adds weight to the specific page and keyword modifiers. As well, in overall search for the matrix, keywords ratings may perform better than cast, reviews may perform better than ratings, and trailer may perform better than reviews. But what if the user does not click on anything but does another more specific search? Google often looks for search clues through secondary searches and considers this as important to search intent. In this case, the search is more specific in an effort to create a more desirable SERP link list. The secondary search history may mirror the original SERP CTR for keyword modifiers or not. Still, these are weighed much the same way and may be weighted slightly higher than the modifiers for a search for just the matrix.

Google will take the URI and split it at the slash [/] and, in a sense, take the URI segments as an array. The first segment will weigh more than the second segment which will weigh more than the third segment. This is predicated on the notion that sub-directories are more narrow in topic scope than the parent therefore requiring a more narrow search intent and the further away from the home page another page is, the less important it is. So the URI /the-matrix/trailer/ will weigh the matrix more than trailer. Having a URI /trailer/the matrix/ will weigh trailer higher than the matrix. Keep this in mind.

Consider how people search. The search query is always ordered in importance from left to right by the searcher when entered. This is because for most of us, we learn to read left to right and hence begin to think in terms of left to right. There are exceptions for other languages of course that Google takes into account. So a search for the matrix trailer would weigh the phrase the matrix higher than trailer. But trailer we know is a modifier and has more weight. Google reorders the search query by weight (and therefore intent) to be trailer the matrix. Since the matrix is a known phrase, the effect would be trailer "the matrix". A search for the matrix trailer would result in a different SERP list than if you had quoted the entire search as "the matrix trailer". Because Google likes exact intent (pay attention to this word) matches, not exact keyword matches, any match for trailer "the matrix", would be placed higher in the SERPs.

Okay. It is only slightly more complicated than this, but it all fits within the same realm. So you get my point.

On to some other points quickly.

Please also understand that it is not always necessary to put keywords in the URL/URI, title tag, or h1 tag to have the same or better effect. For example, I found that keywords found in the description meta-tag and h2, h3, etc. tags can outperform keywords found in the URL/URI which are sometimes totally ignored because they are so common. In this case, I would not put these keywords in the URL/URI, title tag, or h1 tag, but in the h2 and possibly h3 tags. The reason for this is simple. Overuse of keywords by many sites can have a detrimental effect. In this case, Google will ignore some keywords used in these tags and prefer them within content hence the h2 tag. This is because Google will simply prefer content clues over keyword optimization especially very common keyword optimization that is not strong enough to warrant a penalty or even a second look.

But what about creating your site for humans? This would mean that the URI /the-matrix/trailer/ would be more desirable? Yes it could be. You have to weigh whether anyone would manually type in your URL/URI or use it in a predictable way. If the answer is yes, then /the-matrix/trailer/ might be best depending. If the answer is no, then /trailer/the-matrix/ may yield more search users with clear intent. It is all about matching the users expectations more than anything. Because no amount of optimization can beat a high bounce rate.

So to be more specific, is /the-matrix/trailer/ better or worse than /trailer/the-matrix/? That would depend upon search history. We can never really know this for sure. But it is likely that /trailer/the-matrix/ will match user intent more than /the-matrix/trailer/ based upon what we know about how Google handles searches. The only way to know for sure is to experiment.

Let's make one more final consideration. How many trailers would I have for The Matrix? One. But how many trailers would I have on my site? More than one (I would assume). So it makes sense that trailers would be a TLD (top level directory) based upon that notion. Organizationally, this may make better sense.

  • I wish i could vote more than once. Great explanation. – Terminal Jan 4 '15 at 14:39
  • 1
    Will it be safe to assume that breadcrumbs too are weighted from left to right? – Terminal Jan 4 '15 at 15:00
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    @Hector I have been reading the original research papers, patents, books, white papers, and so on from Google and have worked on niche search engines created with feeds from major search engines using Harvest. As well, I have been reading the various websites with a lot of salt. The problem is that few of them are of any particular value and even the best gets it wrong and will mislead you. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it is out of ignorance. The key is to avoid those sites that parrot other sites. Oddly, this is the best site for specific information. – closetnoc Oct 6 '15 at 15:45
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    @Hector You have to remember that almost all SEO sites are either selling you something or trying to get a slice of the advertising pie. I am updating my pages (which currently suck) but will be as informative as this post through and through. I expect to be done in the winter. Given that, MOZ is probably the best though I find inaccuracies that seem to conflict with what Google actually says. Also, stay away from those sites that quote Matt Cutts too much. Matt is not the problem. It is just that people misread what he says too often and focus on a single source for information too much. – closetnoc Oct 6 '15 at 15:49
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    @Ratan Nothing wrong with your examples except that from a semantics point of view, Google uses / as a separator and clusters the terms in between them. As well, think of each level of the directory/hierarchy as something like a tag in a blog. Your examples are fine but do not yield quite as much potential. – closetnoc Feb 25 '16 at 14:52

When I do a search in Google for "The Matrix Trailer", I get 8 sites that do not follow any of the URL recommendations. 1 that semi follows. 1 That is almost exact to these recommendations.

For example, this is IMDB's URL: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/trailers. Doesn't even say "Matrix". But IMDB is an authority on Movies, Actors, etc... My point, don't get boggled down on making the perfect URL. Your site's relevance and authority are the main factors.

While I am familiar with the concept that Google ranks subdirectories and their child directories with some of the weighting based on their position in the directory structure, I am quite uncertain that this is an actual factor.

At one pont, this was a factor but that was before the implementation of Caffeine, Google's current Search Index. In the olden days, before Iggy Azalea and driverless cars, Google did not "fully" score and weight pages upon their discovery, thus they would make first-order assumptions about pages -- and one of them was that if your home page (the default page at document root) had a PageRank (PR) of 5, then example.com/1leveldown/subpage.htm would have a page rank of 4 and example.com/1leveldown/2levelsdown/subpage.htm would have a PR of 3.

These observations were verified by myself and others over and over again, but that was a long time ago now. And there's no real need for that anymore with the current methods of indexing and scoring pages.

URL naming is vastly overrated now, because it used to be tremendously effective on sites of sufficient scale.

If you look at the examples used in the top response, you'll see that the SERPs do not really behave in any relation to the URL structure. What you will often find instead is that the SERPS model the volume and authority of the internal linking to a page.

One thing I can tell you is that " trailer" these days brings up a big Knowledge graph entry that is simply an embedded YouTube of the trailer as the first result. "trailer " brings up a host of YouTube links first.

My answers to your questions:

Is it true that resource deeper in URL hierarchy is tend to be less important when comparing to URLs of other site?

"Yes, all other things being equal, which they never are, so actually, no."

Is sacrificing meaningful, seamless hierarchy worth for this SEO optimization?

"Absolutely not, give Google a seamless hierarchy to crawl where everything has metadata and on-page text that reflects the user need you are trying to satisfy with the page, and you will profit.

Your questions were:

Is it true that resource deeper in URL hierarchy is tend to be less important when comparing to URLs of other site?

No, this is not true because all depends from content and seed keyword you are aiming for.

Is sacrificing meaningful, seamless hierarchy worth for this SEO optimization?

Yes, all is under one domain. Look when Google give you page rank, not only example.com get page rank but all links and subdomain get it.

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