Friendly web addresses

When redesigning boagworld considerable time was spent formatting the sites’ web addresses. In this post I explain why so much time was taken and introduce you to the tools I used.

Website owners are beginning to realise that the address of each web page is a crucial part of its design. These friendlier website addresses provide three benefits:

  • Memorability
  • Better navigation
  • and improved search engine placement

Understanding these benefits provide a small but significant advantage over the competition.

Memorability

For Boagworld, the major consideration was ensuring my web addresses were memorable. If you have ever listened to the podcast you will know that each week I refer users to the shows notes by saying something like…

Go to boagworld.com/podcast and select show 114.

I did this because the address was too long to read and remember. A typical show would have an address of…

http://www.boagworld.com/archives/2008/03/114_forum.html

The problem was almost always the same when referring to third party sites. The URLs were just too hard to remember or guess.

Being able to guess a web address isimportant, and leads nicely on to our second benefit.

Better navigation

A well designed web address should enable a user to guess other related addresses. Take for example Flickr.

To see my photos you go to…

http://www.flickr.com/people/boagworld/

Once you have seen that website address, it is easy to guess the address for another users photographs. The same applies to tags. Once you have seen that photos tagged with my name have the address…

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/paulboag

…it is easy to guess the format for other tags.

However, the addresses on flickr do more than provide navigation. They also give context as to your location within the site. By looking at the addresses above you know not only where you are in the site but what type of information you are viewing.

In effect the web address contains valuable information about the page. This helps explain why friendly urls are good for search engine rankings.

Search engine ranking

Search engines do not always like web addresses produced by dynamically driven sites. Long query strings such as…

http://www.boagworld.com/index.php?sourceid=navclient&q=4

…would have once been rejected entirely by search engines. Today things have moved on, and most search engines will crawl them. However, they still place limits on how they crawl them and so generally they should be avoided.

Worst still, the web address above provides no keywords to help a search engine understand the meaning of the page.

However, a semantically written web address like the one for this article…

http://boagworld.com/technology/friendly_urls/

…says a lot about its content.

Hopefully now the benefits of meaningful web addresses are obvious. Let me now show you two tools I have used to improve the web addresses on the boagworld website.

Useful tools

The method for making your web addresses more friendly is largely dependant on the technology that generates your site. However if like me you are using a blogging platform, the chances are it already has the tools built in. Both movable type and wordpress allow you to set the format of your addresses and both have pretty poor defaults.

For example, movable type will default to archiving blog posts using the following format…

http://www.boagworld.com/year/month/name.html

Generally people are not interested in seeing posts from a specific period. Instead they want posts on a similar subject. I have therefore changed the format to…

http://www.boagworld.com/category/name.html

Of course, you maybe working with a technology that does not support this feature. If that is the case, check out How to succeed with URLs(A) on A List Apart. This article provides so very practical approaches which may help.

The other tool I have adopted provides a useful fallback if all else fails. It is called Shorty(B) and works likeTinyURL. You install it on your server and it takes long URLs and shortens them to something memorable.

Screenshot of Shorty

For example I could take the web address of an article on sitepoint about Friendly URLs and reduce it from…

http://www.sitepoint.com/blogs/2007/11/05/friendly-urls/

to…

http://boagworld.com/links/sitepoint

This is invaluable on the podcast as it allows me to read every address. However it could also be used to shorten the URLs of key content on your site.

Hopefully I have convinced you of the value of friendly URLs and provided a couple of suggestions about how to start. However, I would love to hear your tips on creating the perfect web address. Post them in the comments below.

  • http://www.grantmc.co.uk Grant

    Great post Paul. You have some very useful information here as always and I agree that WP and MT have poor URL formats which are a must edit when starting a new blog.
    Also if anyone is going to start changing the URL format please give users information or use re-directs to the new URL.

  • http://akamike.net/ Mike Robinson

    I’ve been considering changing my site’s URL structure to category based rather than date based. As you said, it does make more sense since less people will look for posts by date. Great post!

  • http://onmovabletype.com/ Su

    For example, movable type will default to archiving blog posts using the following format…
    http://www.boagworld.com/archives/year/month/name.html
    This hasn’t been true for some time now. It’s not even the default in the version of MT that you are using yourself right now so it seems a bit odd of you to even bring it up. The /archives directory was dropped sometime during the 3.x series.
    Generally people are not interested in seeing posts from a specific period. Instead they want posts on a similar subject.
    This is completely subjective, and not indicative of “poor” defaults, but your own opinion and preference. Which is fine except that you’re presenting it as fact. The only way the following example makes any sense would be to assume that the general populace hacks URLs before looking for basic navigation.
    Beyond that, you also gloss that it’s much less likely you’ll change the publish date of a post after the fact than change or rename its category, which in your suggestion may result in that item being moved to a new URL[1], having significant implications for your engine ranking section.
    [1] MT uses a category basename to avoid this(I don’t know about WP), but if the new name is drastically different, forcing an edit to the basename may be called for.

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    @Su… You make an excellent point about the changing url in the future. However, you can work around these changes as I have done with this site (the old urls still work).
    As for the archive; again you are correct the new version of MT does not use Archives however the point still stands. The URL is impossible to remember or guess.
    As for the comment about categories being subjective… well its my opinion and I stand by it. Sorry.
    Good points though and I will try and raise them when I do this piece for the podcast. Thanks for the comments.

  • http://ooyes.net website design

    Great post Paul. Very useful information. Keep going in this direction!

  • http://ollieparsley.com Ollie Parsley

    Great post Paul!
    Getting these friendly URL’s does also depened on access to the server. For instance I have sites hosted on a Windows box with IIS which does not handly friendly urls well unless you install a patch (Hopeless if you do not have root access to the server as the case is with most hosting companies). But Linux is great as you can use the Mod Rewrite commands in the htaccess file at the root of the website. You don’t need root access to the server (apart from to modify the htaccess file). Thats what WordPress uses which is why I host my WordPress blogs on a Linux box.
    Anyway thought that might be useful for some people, I know this is meant to be more design then serverside but it does affect the site design in a way!
    Ollie
    twitter.com/olliedude2k

  • http://onmovabletype.com Su

    @Paul: Well, there’s always going to be some possible objection to any given URL scheme. I’m not attacking yours in service to some /other/ universal structure–which I don’t believe in–so much as bringing up some of the potential caveats inherent to the suggestions. This is always a considered decision and the archiving structure should be a product of the content’s needs, not an unevaluated external rule. I would seriously question using a category-based scheme for permalinks on something like pepysdiary.com, say. I’m not sure the primary content even /has/ categories, for that matter. Though I’d still do away with the /archive dir there grin

  • http://www.ericwolf.org Brother Wolf

    Doesn’t this create all sorts of conflicts with in the sites navigation? I know your going to say that smart people won’t make the same link twice – right. If a human can do it they will – I have..
    Love the show upgrade and site upgrade.

  • http://www.microedge.co.uk Steve Edge

    Great post Paul,
    I would have mentioned perma links in your post, which is the method used in most blogs. WordPress for example. A permalink changes a dynamic url like http://www.boagworld.com/page.php?id=114 into http://www.boagworld.com/friendly-url‘shtm.
    However my main gripe with perma links is that they are not physical pages. Any WordPress blog owner knows if they FTP their site there is no directory called articles, despite this being in the url. It is all done froma .htaccess file held on the server.
    I have spent considerable time solving this problem by writing PHP programs that will physically write html pages to the server in the logical directory to create the perfect desired url.

  • http://www.philadesigns.com Carl Franke

    Another great tool for Word Press is the “SEO Title Tag” plugin, which allows you to write custom title tags for every post and page. Really effective!…
    Love the new site, Paul! Makes me want to escape the city.

  • http://uznay.uz Kleorotor

    Who can help me with lessons on Photoshop?
    I do design for the site http://uznay.uz (site with information about facilities and services).
    Maybe one will nibut proposals for design?

  • http://www.mountainbikesapart.com Mountain Bike Rider

    Welcome back Paul!
    I’ve been forced to listen to far inferior podcasts in the past month or so.
    Also, well done on the highland fling compering, I was there and it livened it up a fair bit. I think it even encouraged a bit more questioning from the audience which is always a good thing.
    Colin

  • http://bennetts-seo.co.uk Bennett Seo

    http://www.boagworld.com/category/name.html
    Is not only easy to remember, but makes for really good SEO,
    Adding .html on the end has had mixed results with some people saying it makes google think its static but others saying its not a keyword remove it. Its up to you really i would remove it.
    Simon
    Bennett – seo

  • Simon Douglas

    Comment spam already – you must be so excited!
    Really nice site refresh and good to have you back.
    Is there not still a trust issue with services like TinyURL – that people have no idea where they’ll end up? At least with Shorty, by having as associated with your domain, people will should have some sense that it’s legit.
    Simon

  • http://bennetts-seo.co.uk Bennett Seo

    Why do they spam there is no point there is nofollow on all of the links.

  • Martijn v/d Ven

    @Simon D.
    TinyURL will offer a preview for you if you want. Pointing your browser to http://preview.tinyurl.com/ followed by the link ID (the part that normally follows tinyurl.com/) will bring you to a page by tinyurl showing the URL were you would’ve gone. If you than don’t trust that link simply google it.
    A bit extra work, but it’ll help. I bet there is some Greasemonkey script or Firefox add-on that will rewrite the links for you.
    @Paul
    Thanks for the tip on Shorty, was wondering what you used to do this. High probability that I’ll be running it soon too.

  • http://humte.com/blog Alan Pritt

    Chris Shiflett has an interesting take on this; using verbs instead of nouns for the categories. On OmniTI, they have links such as http://omniti.com/is/hiring
    He points out this is more for fun than practical benefit, but it certainly has the ‘memorability’ part down.
    http://shiflett.org/blog/2008/mar/urls-can-be-beautiful

  • John B

    I very much agree with all your points here. Taking the time to think the URL structure is definitely worth it. But, Paul, all of my previous bookmarks to your site are broken. I went into my delicious to pull up an article to send someone and discovered I was disturbing the force.
    While you’re new URL structure is very friendly, my broken bookmarks are not. Boo!

  • http://boagworld.com Paul Boag

    that shouldn’t be the case John. Can you email me the problem URLs.

  • John B

    Paul, I sent you the problem URLs. I also did a quick search on delicious for others who have bookmarked boagworld and found that a majority of the old links do in fact work, which indicate redirects were set up. Shame on me for doubting your skillz.

  • http://www.interactiondesignblog.com Niels

    Clear web addresses are underestimated, your articles clearly point to the advantages. In most blogging platforms such tools already exist, with Joomla I use a plugin that changes all the url’s into friendly urls, my guess is that such plugins exist for most platforms.

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