Benefits of Plain English URLs

By Deane Barker on April 15, 2008

(Note: the audio for this post is here.

We have a client building a large, static site. The files in the site right now — in the middle of development — are named for their page ID on the content manifest:

A657.aspx
J864.aspx
etc.

We’re going through now and assigning them more usable, “plain english” URLs:

/products/industrial/portable
/products/residential/cleaning
etc.

This is going to be a tedious process, and I got to wondering why we do it. So I figure I’d write down all the reasons why the plain-english URLs are a good idea.

  1. They are easier to remember and communicate
    The plain-english URLs are more memorable to the customer, and they impart some meaning. When picking URLs, we envison someone at the client’s firm reading the URL to someone over the phone. How easy is it going to be?

  2. Users can use them as a navigation device
    The plain-english URLs impart some meaning to where the user is in the Web site. The URL becomes another crumbtrail.

  3. They have branding value
    The URL becomes another way to position your product or information in the marketing space. It becomes another label to describe your product.

  4. They have SEO value
    We’ve debated this before, but an unscientific study apparently proves there’s some value to it.

  5. You hide the file extension
    I think this is a critical point (though I don’t always follow it). File extensions are bad form in general, because they bind you somewhat to the underlying platform.

  6. You can use the URL in code to determine context
    By referring the URL in code, you can determine where the user is in the Web site. In this client’s case, we’re going to drive their navigation off the URL — based on what URL was accessed, we will decide what secondary nav to load in the sidebar.

  7. The URL becomes an abstraction layer to content
    The long URLs don’t have to point to actual files. By using URL re-writing, you can point those wherever you want. Of course, you could do this with the short ones too, but “/products/industrial/” has universal value which you could always point to specific content. What universal abstract value does “A657.aspx” have?

  8. They open up new analytics
    In particular, Google Analytics has “content drilldown,” where you can roll up traffic views based on URL pattern. You can see how many people visited the “portable” section, then how many visited the “industrial” section. This can tell you things like what the most popular section in “industrial products” was, etc.

That’s a quick list. If you have others, let me know in the comments.

(And yes, I know Gadgetopia’s URLs are somewhat lame in this regard. There are reasons why I did it, but changing it now would probably not be worth the value. But if I had to do it over…)

Gadgetopia
What This Links To
What Links Here

Comments

  1. Deane, thanks for the list of reasons why Cool URL’s (as TBL calls them) are valuable. No worries about your URL’s. I’ve realized how handy your short four number ID’s (at least for the next 3000+ posts) are handy when I’ve listened to your podcasts–“read post #1234 to find out more about…”

    One thing you could do (if you wanted) would be to add a URL styled version of your post name behind your post number, and then use mod_rewrite (or the like) to ignore the post name. You’re URL’s would then have the added benefit of having meaning when I e-mail them to friends, but avoid the problem of a crazy set of redirects to manage the migration.

    You’re likely way ahead of me in thinking this through, but I thought I’d submit the idea all the same.

    As far as Amazon’s URL’s go, they’ve actually come a long way. Take the purchasable Kindle version of this blog for instance: http://www.amazon.com/Gadgetopia/dp/B000MV9BD4/

    It’s not completely clear what you’d get at that URL, but it’s better than it used to be. It’s also nice that the query string parameters are optional (as they should be unless I wanted the resource I’m getting back to be modified by them somehow). As I remember, they didn’t use to be, and sending those links over e-mail was doomed to failure most times.

    Anyway, thanks for posting about Cool URL’s, Deane. :)

  2. (sorry for so many comments)

    The URL in my comment above actually already works (as does the category one). :) So if you had your templates modified to output their links in the new structure, you’d be set. I’ll be e-mailing them around that way in any case. :)

  3. Maybe the SEO effect of plain english URLs is a side effect of using them. By that, I mean, in a listing of search results, users seeing a readable URL with the word they searched may be more likely to click that link.

    I think most search engines factor in how often a link is clicked on the search results page into results ranking. Next time rankings are recalculated, if your link generates a lot of user clicks relative to other links, it should move up in the rankings. Just a theory.

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