URL Structure Best Practices

A common question is "How can I create a short URL?" for my page. We want short URLs because we think they:

 

  • are easier to read
  • are easier to share
  • areeasier to accommodate on marketing materials
  • make the content seem important, not secondary

 

Let's review URL best practices and then examine some of the pitfalls of the pursuit of shorter URLs.

URL Best Practices

 

Just use words

URLs should be lowercase words separated by hyphens, without underscores, special characters (e.g. #$%$%^&), or any spaces, e.g. mysite.com/about/board, not mysite.com/about_board&directors


 

Keep the menu path

Try to keep as much of the menu path as possible, while trying to keep it short. If you make the URL too long, Internet Explorer won’t load it. But if you remove valuable information about the location of the page, this is disorienting to users. When URLs follow the menu path they act, along with page names, navigation active states, and breadcrumbs (if you use them), as valuable signs of where you are on the site. For example, if your page is Minutes and the URL is /minutes, this provides considerably less information than a page called Board Meeting Minutes that is located at /about/board/minutes.



In the above example you can see that there are many signs/markers of your location on the site and these support the user's quick understanding of the content.

For regularized content, e.g. a Resource, a URL pattern like /resources/optimizing-url-structure is preferable. However, there may be significant performance gains on sites by using an ID, like /resources/112 instead. Ultimately, this choice should be made by a developer, based on your project priorities.

 

URL Pitfalls

 

  • Custom URLs for everything
    If your content management system is configured properly, content will be assigned a logical URL automatically. Try the stick with the default.
  • Slow page load due to many redirects
    A redirect is when you configure one URL (usually short) to resolve to another (usually long). Each redirect adds to the page load time for your whole site. When a website loads the browser runs through the entire list of redirects on every page of your site. Website users have a very low tolerance for slow page load. You need to weigh the priority of redirects against the chance of alienating users by having slow page load or having higher hosting costs so that you can have a faster web server.
  • Infinite loops
    Imagine you want a redirect for your page called All About Apples from /fruit/apples/all-about-apples to /apples. Then, someone comes along and creates a page called Apples, which automatically is assigned the URL /apples. This will make the website have an error and not resolve properly.
  • Nonsensical URLs
  • Don't fall into the pitfall of nonsensical concatenations of works, e.g. Vancouver Charity Name becomes /vancharnam. That just doesn't make sense! If content is abbreviated it should use a recognized abbreviation format.
  • Meaningless URLs
    Removing words from a URL can make it meaningless. For example, Vancouver Early Childhood Educators' Association Yearly Fundraiser could be shortened to /help-kids, but meaning is lost through this abstraction.
  • URLs must be readable
    Services that shorten URLs like Bitl.y/tinyurl or like Drupal//WordPress modules/plugins, which take a long URL and redirect this to a short URL that is usually like /xy74839 have grown in popularity, because really, do short URLs need to be readable? The popularity of these services suggest that the real reason we want a short URL is simply so it won't take up so much room in our marketing materials.
  • Only one domain name
    One option for organizations with very long domain names is having another URL that is shorter to use for marketing materials,  e.g. if your URL name is westvanlibrary.ca you could purchase westvanlib.ca to shorten your URLs for marketing materials.
  • This is really important content, but the sitemap should stay the same
    If you want a very short URL for something, does this mean it is very important and perhaps the sitemap should be adjusted? For example, if you host a yearly event and that event gains and gains in popularity, then perhaps rather than creating a redirect, you need to rethink your navigation overall, so that the event is featured in main/secondary/other navigation or as a persistent button.
  • People type URLs?
    People don't type URLs very often anymore. Usually we click. Twitter automatically shortens URLs. Facebook doesn't care. Some listserves don't preserve URLs when they are long, so they become unclickable, so URLs shorteners are a good idea in certain settings, but by and large, people just click them and copy and paste them and the length is irrelevant.
     

If you have woven a web of URL redirect madness, want help implementing URL shortening, or maybe it's time to revisit your site map so that your key content is being showcased, let us know and we can help.