26 Jul 2011 - Digital Strategy // By Productive Edge Team

URL formatting – using querystrings (or not)

A marketing friend told me that he was debating a developer at his company over whether or not using querystrings in URLs was a good idea. The idea here is that you intentionally want your content to be indexed in search egnines at a URL that uses a querystring. My buddy referred to this, somewhat older perspective from Rand Fishkin and wondered whether the idea that querystrings were in general bad practice (in terms of SEO and content) was true anymore. Given that querystrings are generally used to handle dynamic content (example.com/product.html?id=1234) the first question might be: does Google even index content served at URLs with querystring parameters? Back in 2006 Matt Cutts addressed this in a video, but doing a search for IPad2 Best Buy clearly shows the first result to be Best Buy's product page which is indexed with a querystring. So really the question becomes more around whether or not you want your site indexed in this manner, and whether or not it is best practice. One thing we know is very important about URLs: content. Take a look at the following URLs: http://www.example.com/technology/tablets/ipad2 http://www.exmaple.com/product.html?id=1234 In the top one we get content in the URL. This is helpful in many ways in terms of search visibility.
  1. A user can read that URL and instantly know what the content generally will be about. When this link shows up as a search result or in a document/email/webpage, this clearly emphasizes to a searcher what they are getting when they click. If that is what they are interested in, that click is much more likely to happen than with a link that does not describe the content.
  2. Anyone linking to that URL, especially if they use that URL in their link text, will be emphasizing the keyword content at that URL.
  3. Both humans and search engines get a sense of classification of the content in that the ipad 2 is a "tablet" and it's "tech".
These ideas are supported in Google documentation. Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide has a section on URLs, where they say:
    "If your URL contains relevant words, this provides users and search engines with more information about the page than an ID or oddly named parameter would."
This article on Google Webmaster Tools offers more detailed commentary on URL structure. Essentially my takeaway is that URL's generated by machines are not as helpful to humans as URLs generated by humans. All of this doesn't *really* answer the question about querystrings however. One could easily just do this: http://www.example.com/store.php?category=technology&type=tablets&product=ipad2 ...and gain all the advantages of a static URL. In fact you might argue it is more descriptive. Matt Cutts in the video above does mention that too many parameters are not going to be indexed, albeit that video is from 2006. There is one thing I think you gain from traditionally static URLs that querystrings don't naturally imply: hierarchy. Hierarchy, in terms of its descriptive value on your content, is worth something. With querystrings, every parameter is on equal footing as the next. With a folder structure, you have a natural hierarchical relationship that also lends itself well to site structure, navigation and website taxonomy. This is more user friendly and tells the search engines more about your content and how to classify it. Two random side notes. I took a look at how Amazon was indexing products. Specifically, for the IPad2, take a look at their current URL structure: http://www.amazon.com/Apple-MC979LL-Tablet-White-NEWEST/dp/B0047DVWLW Notice that they are including the brand in the URL and also product description details rather than traditional classification information (like product type). Amazon thinks the search market already knows what product they want and are searching by brand and product specs rather than shopping around for products and price comparisons. This is a very important point about brand and SEO which I will deal with in subsequent posts. Other random: found this article on URL structure from 1999. Kind of a nostalgic look at the past and emphasizes the ways in which SEO changes over time.
URL formatting – using querystrings (or not)