Questioning the Effectiveness of Keywords in URLs

By Deane Barker

There’s an accepted theory in SEO: put keywords in your URLs. This is so accepted, that no one questions it and content management systems routinely have modules, extensions, and allowances for users to create keyword-rich URLs.

But, does this work? Does anyone know for sure? I’ve been casually looking for a while for resources which prove or disprove the effectiveness of this theory, but I haven’t found much. Does this emperor have any clothes?

Years ago, I read Shari Thurow’s book “Search Engine Visibility” and she said this:

Simply placing keywords in a domain name and/or filename is not going to make or break top search engine visibility. […] Keywords in the domains names and filenames are not as important as people are led to believe. […] Keywords in a domain name give minuscule boost when all other factors (text, link, and popularity component) are equal.

I agree with this – I feel like the emphasis on this SEO technique is way, way over-rated. There are so many other factors people should worry about before they start aliasing pages. Put another way, keywords in URLs might be a small part of a over-arching SEO strategy, but they’re not worth much by themselves.

(Now, don’t confuse this with an indictment of clean URLs. I like URL cleanliness, which we’ve talked about quite a bit around here. I think clean, short URLs have a distinct usability benefit. Hence, the URLs on this site.)

I had someone come to me earlier this year in a big hurry to alias all their URLs to help their search engine positioning. I took a look through their site and noticed this:

  1. No unique titles

  2. No meta

  3. Horrific HTML

  4. No keywords in header tags

  5. etc.

I explained to them that they had much bigger SEO problems than keywords in their URLs, but they paid me all the same to allow them to alias all their pages. I have no idea if it helped them or not, but I doubt it.

Getting all uptight about URLs in most cases is like me saying, “I want to win the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding championship…so I need to go get a tan right now.” Sure, having a good tan is a small part of being a competitive bodybuilder, but there are probably quite a few other things I should focus on first. Like my abs.

As such, I feel that keywords in your URLs should be #7 or #8 on a 10-point list of the top SEO techniques, not the #1 or #2 spot that people keep putting it in. Again, I’m looking for any solid research on the effectiveness of this technique. If you know of anything, comments are open.

(Irony: mouseover that Amazon link above and check out the URL…)

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