Site Migrations and Creating New URL Structures

August 14, 2018
By Jon Meck

Migrating or redesigning a site is a chance for new beginnings. New pages! New functionality! New systems!

But with new things comes new responsibilities. One of the first items to consider is your new URL structure. Taking time to discover the best URL structure for your site–and for SEO–will set you up for future success.

William-Shakespeare-quote

As an SEO overseeing a migration, your role will shift from an in-the-weeds analyst to a consultant and educator. You’ll be asked best practices and tasked with guiding teams through this unfamiliar world full of potential and new HTML tags. You’ll work with IT teams and developers you previously never knew existed.

Suddenly, you’ll be fielding questions about:

  • URL Structures
  • Which New Pages to Create/Delete
  • How to Organize the Site
  • Analytics

And the list goes on. If you’ve done your job up to this point, you’ll have advocates on other teams asking, “But what about the SEO implications.” They may not understand just how SEO works, but you’ve scared them with mentions of algorithm updates and ranking drops that any project – no matter how small – must be signed off by the SEO team.

Congrats! You’ve made yourself invaluable and involved in every decision. Before you think this is a bad thing, you’re actually #blessed.

While these pre-migration discussions may dominate your schedule, it’s better to be involved upfront and tell the UI team that Google views a blue vs. orange button equally than to be brought in at the 11th hour and learn *gasp* that no one’s thought of canonical tags.

URL Structures

If your site is upgrading its platform, 99% of the time that means your URLs will change, too. Hopefully, for the better. Gone are the days of CatID=12345 and hello keyword rich URLs!

This is your chance to establish ground rules. You’ll be able to create folders and character limits that will dictate URL structures for the foreseeable future.

Before You Dive In…

Google’s John Mueller has said to not change URLs just for SEO purposes. If you have the option to keep the same structures, don’t. touch. anything.

no touching

While it’s tempting, those URLs have been accruing authority for years, may be linked to from other sites, and you introduce risk and volatility when using redirects. Plus, it’s one extra thing you’ll have to manage.

Sometimes, though, you might not have a choice.

If you’re doing a full redesign and the new back-end systems necessitate a URL change, do it wisely. If the company is rebranding and the new brand comes with a fresh URL, make it count.

Strategically approach this time and infuse SEO best practices into your shiny new URLs.

Use Normal Naming Conventions

While keywords in URLs inform visitors what a page is about, they don’t provide the same ranking boost they once did.

In a 2016 Google Webmaster Hangout, Mueller shared that keywords in URLs are “a very small ranking factor. It’s not something I’d really try to force.”

This means you should encourage teams naming URLs to name them something intuitive, but don’t stress about finding the exact right phrase. If you’re between /car-repair/ or /auto-repair/ – use either! Google gets it.

Shorter URLs are Better Than Longer Ones

To quote Occam’s Razor, “The simplest solution is always the best.” The same is true when creating URLs.

If you’re considering if /new-homes-for-sale/ or /new-homes/ is best, save yourself nine characters and opt for /new-homes/.

Other pages on your site will provide context and you’ll save character limits by removing implied phrases. Shorter URLs are also easier to display on smaller screens for mobile searches.

What About Mobile?

After reading my first draft, my colleague asked that question. It’s what we all should be asking these days.

What about mobile URLs?

Responsive design is Google’s recommended design pattern.” Having your mobile and desktop pages responsively load on one www. domain is preferred, but you can handle separate m. and www. URLs by setting appropriate canonical and rel=alternate tags between the two.

If that’s how your site is configured, see Google’s guidelines on how to annotate.

URL structure is less important to mobile visitors from a visual standpoint. It’s an element of your site that few phone visitors may even see. On my 5.7 inch, XL phone, I see 28 characters in my Chrome browser.

When you think about it, that’s really small. It’s the equivalent of “https://www.examplesite.com/”. Everything beyond that is hidden.

With the common use of schema.org markup and Google getting better at understanding a site’s folder structure, mobile URLs also rarely show up in SERPs. All a user will see on their small screen is a list of folders.

Breadcrumbs on Mobile SERPs

If you have separate m. or www. URLs, apply the same best practices to both. Keep the URL structure the same between your domains to help with cross-device consistency. Since site users will rarely see your URLs and because Google doesn’t surface them anymore, don’t overthink mobile URL structure.

Subfolders Should be Used in Moderation

The number of subfolders to include can vary greatly; there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation. That’s because considering URL folders and the right number to expose gets tricky.

Our recommendation is to consider your specific implementation and the size of your site.

Let’s run through options.

For small sites, displaying 2-3 folders in a URL can provide users with additional context before even viewing the page. Your site is small and it’ll be easy to manage.

Perhaps you’re a restaurant with multiple locations and unique menus. You’d want to expose each of those locations within the URL to help customers know which location they’re viewing: /east-end/menu and /north-shore/menu. See how those URLs are better than /menu-1 or /menu-2?

Think of URLs as a way to tip-off visitors about what they’ll see before then get to your site.

For large sites – especially eCommerce ones – you’ll have more things to consider. You may have to decide whether to display parent categories (and how many) or perhaps you’ll want to name URLs according to their page template.

If you’re leaning towards a multi-folder URL path, you’ll want to consider what’s intuitive without being overkill. It’s very much a “trust-your-gut” situation.

Let’s imagine you’re a jeweler who sells gold solitaire engagement rings. You have a few options of the child-parent relationships for that landing page:

  • /rings/engagement/solitaire/gold (4 folders)
  • /solitaire/gold (2 folders)
  • /rings/gold-solitaire-rings (2 folders)
  • /gold-solitaire-rings (1 folder)

All are viable options, but which one provides context and is most intuitive? That’s up to you.

You also may want to use a naming convention based on page templates.

If, for example, you have a page template that shows products, you may want to name all those pages… wait for it… /products/. This would apply to your necklaces, rings and earrings pages.

  • /products/necklaces
  • /products/rings
  • /products/earrings

So which option is best? I wish we could give you an answer, but this one will depend on your site. To help you decide, sketch out one section of your navigation and what the URLs might look like. Does it feel like overkill if you have 6 folders when 2 will do? Are your users going to get lost by seeing a page that’s 5 folders deep? Does each folder provide value to your customers by being exposed?

It’s Okay to Be A Little Selfish

Once you’ve considered what’s best for your visitors, it’s time to be a bit self-serving. Is the solution you’ve developed also best for YOU? How will your internal teams use those URLs in their reporting, monitoring and general navigation around the site?

If you’re an internal team or an agency working with one client, you will see these URLs every. single. day. of. your. life.

you deserve to be happy

Would it help to filter your data to product detail pages if every page lived within a /p/ folder? (Probably, yes.)

Do you want to view only earring pages so having a parent directory of /earrings/ would help you easily sort the data? (Probably, yes here, too.) Those with a decent subdirectory structure will be easily able to roll up behavior metrics by subdirectory in Google Analytics with an underused feature called the Content Drilldown report.

When sharing the Store Locator URL with your Social team, is it easier for you to share /stores/store-locations/view-all or more simply, /stores/? The more characters in a URL, the easier it is to mess it up.

Create New URLs with Purpose

A migration or site redesign is your chance to reset naming conventions for URLs. While keywords in URLs no longer have an impact on how a page ranks, creating simple, intuitive URLs are a win-win-win all around.

They’ll:

  1. Help customers orient themselves on your site
  2. Provide context for users when clicked on from an external link
  3. Make life infinitely easier for reporting or daily SEO tasks

If your URLs need to change, embrace the opportunity and create a foundation that will benefit IT, Marketing and SEO teams for years to come.