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We are coming to the end of a long project in which we are upgrading our client's site from a custom built CMS to the latest version of Umbraco CMS whilst also making their website responsive. As part of this upgrade process, the URL structure of the site has changed however, we are mainly handling this with 301 redirects so that old redundant links from the old site now link to the new URLs.

Last week, our client threw a major spanner in the works by telling us that the 'SEO experts' that he started using on his current site have said the site structure the new Umbraco site uses is unworkable and is also bad for SEO because it has a lot of 'levels'. Their main concern is that their products and services are nested too far down in the tree and that this somehow effects their SEO negatively. I will admit now that I am no SEO expert and consider the whole SEO thing a bit of a black art that seems to change each week so can anyone give me any advice with regards to this as well as evidence in support (preferably from Google themselves).

This is where the site currently sits if you wish to take a look: http://tinyurl.com/umbracourlstructure

The way we have structured the pages is as follows: (1) = Level {X} = Not in Main Navigation

(1)->Home
  (2)--> Destinations
    (3)---> South America [Continent]
      (4)----> Argentina [Country] {X}
        (5)-----> Buenos Aires [Area] {X}
          (6)------> Buenos Aires [City] {X}
             (7)-------> Package Product 1 {X}
             (7)-------> Package Product 2 {X}
             (7)-------> Package Product 3 {X}
             (7)-------> Hotel Product 1 {X}
             (7)-------> Hotel Product 2 {X}
             (7)-------> Hotel Product 3 {X}
             (7)-------> Activity Product 1 {X}
             (7)-------> Activity Product 2 {X}
             (7)-------> Activity Product 3 {X}
      (4)----> Bolivia {X}
    (3)---> North America [Continent]
  (2)--> Holiday Types
    (3)---> Cruise
    (3)---> Family Holiday
  (2)--> Places To Stay {X}
  (2)--> Things To Do {X}
  (2)--> About Us   
  • Products have actual names on the website but the numbered versions shown above are merely an example

The idea is a user can drill down to the destination that they wish to look at right down to a city level to see the products that are available in that specific area.

When on a continent page, all of the holiday packages that are descendants of that continent are displayed.

If you select a country from the side navigation then these packages are filtered further so that only the ones in that particular country are shown.

If you click an area within the country then these are again filtered down further.

Regardless of where you access the products their url is as follows:

www.example.com/destinations/southamerica/argentina/buenosaires/buenosaires/package-product-1

This of course if because of the tree/folder structure that Umbraco follows by default.

The problem here is that my client wants the URLS to be:

www.example.com/southamerica/argentina

so that they cut out certain pages to make the URLs shorter which I have advised against (mainly because it would involve rewriting the website substantially) .

Does anyone have any advise with regards to this and any experience as the whether or not the level of nesting is indeed bad for SEO? My main issue is that it is only now when we are coming to the end of development that they are raising these issues and altering the structure in Umbraco will essentially mean rewriting a lot of the site which we do not really have the time or resources to do.

I have done a lot of my own research into the issue and Google's official standpoint on this seems to be that the length of the URL and the 'levels/subdirectories' don't actually make any difference. In fact, Google now advise that structured URLs be used in sites as they help the user to logically navigate through the structure. The only issue that really crops up is when parameters are used in URLs but we handle these using Canonical URLs so this shouldn't be an issue.

After discovering these findings, I forwarded the following resources to our client:

Keep a simple URL structure: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/76329?hl=en

Does the number of subdirectories in URL affect its ranking? https://youtu.be/l_A1iRY6XTM

However, they have dismissed both of these resources with the argument that the video is dated 2010 and that Google's practices have probably changed since then.

So, can anyone shed any light on this issue and point me in the direction of any more recent statements or guidelines that Google have released that tie into this issue?

My aim is to really dismiss the claims made by these 'SEO experts' as so far the evidence I have found from Google directly contradicts their claims and I do not wish to redevelop an almost complete website based upon outdated or incorrect SEO advice / information.

  • Again here there is further suggestion that Google doesn't care about levels but more about the overall usability for end users of the site: youtube.com/watch?v=Hx68PlCTuIU – jezzipin Apr 8 '15 at 13:38
  • Do they just want to omit /destinations/, or do they actually want to use /southamerica/argentina as the URL of a specific product (like your example seems to suggest)? Or in other words: Which product URL do they want? – unor Apr 8 '15 at 18:28
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    What your client's "SEO experts" told them is about as valuable as what their homeopaths told them. Both are snake-oil salesmen. – R.. Apr 8 '15 at 19:23
  • I'm pretty sure that by far the best SEO (other than "can Google easily parse your page") is the number and PageRank of pages that link that link to yours. Anything you can influence on your page will have a much lower weighting. – Robert Grant Apr 9 '15 at 6:22
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    Google indexes based on a bottom-up method, not a top-down method. In other words, Google looks at what people do, then indexes. Google does not dictate standards and conventions then expect people to do them. The best SEO you could every do is just make a great site that people want to visit and update it with new content regularly. – fredsbend Apr 9 '15 at 9:54
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Google seems to put very little weight on how a URL is structured right now. You can confirm this by doing any Google search and looking at the URLs that are ranking. You are just as likely to see any of these styles:

  • Exact match domain: www.keyword-phrase.com
  • Exact keyword path: example.com/keyword-phrase
  • Lots of directories: example.com/category/subcategory/info/keyword-phrase
  • Powered by database: example.com/info.php?id=388388
  • Article with slug: example.com/article-2829802-what-do-i-do-with-keyword-phrase

Any advantage of one URL structure over another is not due any direct ranking factors that Google applies. Right now they don't appear to directly favor any style over another. There may be some indirect ranking effects based on how usable the URLs are. See Are keywords in URLs good SEO or needlessly redundant? where I have an answer that addresses how keywords in URLs should be structured for SEO.

One potential issue with www.example.com/destinations/southamerica/argentina/buenosaires/buenosaires/package-product-1 is that the length will occasionally cause it to get truncated. This most often happens when it is sent in email or when it is pasted into a forum. It may come out as www.example.com/destinations/southamerica/argentina/buenosai... Users that visit that will get a 404 error. You won't be able to fully correct it because the part that was chopped off has important information about exactly what the user wanted. Google will find these URLs and report 404 errors in Google Webmaster Tools.

Another issue with long URLs is that they users will never remember them or be able to type them. Users most like URLs that are descriptive, memorable, and short enough to type. From a user perspective, the ideal URL might actually be www.example.com/buenos-aires. Of course for a travel site that is hard to manage. www.example.com/boston would have to mean Boston, MA and you would have to have another URL like www.example.com/boston-tx for the less popular city in Texas.www.example.com/portland is very ambiguous because both Portland OR, and Portland ME are popular travel destinations. Wikipedia handles cases like that with "disambiguation" pages and separate URLs like /portland-me and /portland-or.

While your very long directory structure URLs are not ideal and not what I would choose, they won't hurt usability or SEO that much. I'd estimate that ideal short URLs would improve usability 5% which would in turn improve SEO by about 0.5% over the course of several years. There are usually much easier ways of getting that amount of improvement compared to spending the time to revamp the URLs.

  • HI Stephen, thank you for your comments. They are exactly along the lines of what I was thinking in terms of Google not actually having a preference or giving any weight to a particular style. This as it happens is a travel site like you have mentioned and the reason we categorise the pages in this way is for the exact reasons you mention. Another argument in favour of the method Umbraco uses for URLs is that there are more keywords present which again would benefit the SEO of the pages somewhat. If you have any 'official' sources to back up you claims that would be great. – jezzipin Apr 8 '15 at 10:39
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    There are very rarely "official" sources for SEO info. In this case, my information comes from professional experience. I spent 7 years doing SEO for travel websites. I've worked with a variety of URL structures. What Google likes has also changed over time. Before Panda came along and knocked keyword targeted sites out, I would have said that exact keyword path URLs would have been much more important. – Stephen Ostermiller Apr 8 '15 at 11:40
  • As far as "more keywords" go, more isn't usually better. People usually search for travel destinations with just the name. It is common to search with the name and the parent name (usually abbreviated). Nobody includes continents in their search terms for more specific destinatons. – Stephen Ostermiller Apr 8 '15 at 11:45
  • What I mean by office sources is a link from Google directly or from their Webmasters and not just a link from a blog if you see what I mean. My clients main problem is that they trust these so called SEO experts only because the webmasters video I have provided is from 2010 but since then they haven't released anything to retract or discourage that particular standpoint as far as I am aware. – jezzipin Apr 8 '15 at 12:59
  • I would tend to agree with the SEO expert that a shallower directory structure is "better" for SEO. However, as a developer myself, I put everything through a effort vs payout calculation. Changing from a "good" URL to "better" URL is only worth it if it isn't much effort. They benefit from doing it just isn't that high. – Stephen Ostermiller Apr 8 '15 at 15:36
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This related thread, Well structured URLs vs. URLs optimized for SEO , explains it pretty well. My understanding is that the URL will have a slight SEO effect depending on how users tend to search for content on your site but a logic site structure that is easy to update (as websites rarely are static) could perhaps be more valuable than the SEO advantage...

  • Thank you for recognizing my answer here! Directory depth largely does not matter as much as format. I do recommend stripping out unnecessary stuff that caries no SEO weight and paying attention to organization and how users search. One up-vote!! – closetnoc Apr 8 '15 at 15:55
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Humans can get confused/irritated by deep hierarchies. Be kind to your users.

Google Analytics only analyzes (breaks up) the first 4 path parts

You know that geographies aren't really hierarchical right? What continent is Turkey in? What state is Texarkana in?

You should use a hyphen to break up words in URLs.

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The answer is not completely straightforward. SEO has to be linked to user experience and to the business needs of the site. Don't do things just for SEO purposes, but think of SEO together with UX and architecture.

When it comes to URL structure, I always tell clients to keep URLs as similar as possible to the user path through the site. They should show how the site is structured and what the site's priorities are. If the interesting content is five levels down, then you need to ask yourself why does the user have to go through five levels to get to the interesting content. To me, URLs should be almost like breadcrumbs. You don't want to have 10 levels of breadcrumbs, right?

If you have a URL structure based on the user path, and that path is direct and relevant, Google will crawl and index your site in the proper way. Even more important, you will be able to expand and improve your site in the future without dealing with illogical or byzantine structures.

  • Hi Ferro, thankyou for your comments. As a developer I always think about the User experience over SEO however in this case it is the client who is being driven by the SEO company on the other end and this is the reason why we wish to provide evidence that the changes they have proposed will not actually have any benefit compared to the current structure we have in place if that makes sense. – jezzipin Apr 8 '15 at 13:31
  • Having a structure with less "levels" makes navigation (for bots and humans) much clearer and easier. So, there is an advantage, but only if that's the way the site works. There's no point in patching some SEO solution on top of the site, if the site itself still requires the user to select destinations-continent-country-region-city. That is only going to cause problems in the future. Well made SEO almost always results in better user experience, but good SEO starts with the question "how does this site work" instead of "what is good for SEO". – Ferro Apr 9 '15 at 6:56
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Include just the last part of the URI then use canonicals to trunc out the middle levels for bots. The shortened URI [with identifier string if needed] does not have to be visible for avg human use on the site, although they may see it clicking in from SERPS. This shorter [identifier] URI really isnt a big deal IMO since it will revert back to human-friendly segmented structure on next click. Even shares would use the "clean" segmented URI instead of the canonical. Those SEO "pros" should have thought of this first thing. Problem solved.

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