Most webmasters don't think of URLs as a ranking factor, but they should. This is not only because of Google's statement that "We do use information about the structure of a website" but also because of the added benefit of providing additional context to search engines and end users both.
However, it may be time for some clarification on URL parameters – especially since I've been getting a lot of questions about them lately – so here goes!
Why Are Parameters Important?
First things first: why are parameters important? Google's John Mueller states that "URLs with query parameters tend to get lower-quality clicks from users" , which means using this tactic could lead to your content being ranked lower in search results. While the reasons behind this are not really clear, some people think it might be because there is more to sift through for users looking for a specific piece of content on the web. Or perhaps they're seen as clunky and can cause performance issues.
Whatever the reason, Google has been known to rank well-optimized URLs with no query parameters over poorly optimized ones that contain too many parameters. So you could potentially lose out on traffic if your URL structure is not optimal, especially since one study found that "URLs with fewer clicks tend to have significantly higher rankings in Google's search results." This indicates that top ranking pages tend to have shorter URLs than lower ranking ones.
The Parameters Themselves
Let's talk about what makes up a parameter and how we can use this to our advantage. While there are many different types of parameters (see below), the most typical one is simply a value after a question mark in the URL. This value often appears as a keyword when it comes up in search results, so using your keywords here may help with rankings.
Another kind of parameter that webmasters tend to use is segmented parameters. There is no set rule for naming them, but they're typically named for what they represent or how we'll use them down the road . For instance, if a keyword is a relevant topic for a page but isn't the main focus of the article, you could use it as a segmented parameter to see how well it works on another page.
The URL above would take readers who click on this link to http://www.website.com/section1/ and then only show them content that's relevant to pages with "houston" in their title or description (or if they don't have one, the body of the content). You can do this with any number of category pages and split them into separate segments; each one will be its own landing page for your users.
A third type of parameter is one that doesn't actually exist but rather is implied by the way other parameters work together to provide stability for your website. You can easily see these in action if you go to Google and search for keyword + other relevant parameters (e.g., "keyword + definition", "keyword + what does it mean" etc.). All the results you get will have this same structure: exact match keyword first, then another word or two that makes sense with it (the equivalent of a segmented parameter) and then an answer box at the top (which isn't technically a URL parameter but still falls under the same umbrella). This works because there are certain things Google simply won't put in front of your exact-match keyword, so using these other common words first keeps your content from being cut off.
The Parameters You Shouldn't Use
So what parameters should you absolutely avoid? While it's not a comprehensive list , here are some of the most common ones that have been known to cause issues for users and webmasters alike:
?q= - Simply adding "q=keyword" at the end of your URL won't help with rankings, but it could actually hurt them . This is because Google has identified these as spammy queries that some websites use in order to get their pages ranked, regardless of whether or not they're relevant to the content on those pages. As such, using this parameter can impact your site's ranking in the SERPs.
?source= - Similar to ?q= , Google identified these as spammy queries that some websites use in order to get their pages ranked, so webmasters should avoid them . Using this parameter can impact your site's ranking in the SERPs. Even if you're not actively using it for search engine optimization reasons, your users may still be able to see what other sites are linking to yours on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which could undermine your brand's authority on certain topics if they're viewed as illegitimate links.
&tbs=qdr:s - If you've been researching how SEO works over a period of time then this one probably looks familiar to you . It shows up anytime Google detects a spammy query and is meant to inform webmasters that they should remove these types of keywords from their pages. Some users may also experience this message when they're looking to access copyrighted content illegally, so if you see it you also know not to follow the link (or download the file).
NoIndex - This one isn't necessarily spammy like ?q= or &tbs=qdr:s , but it's still not necessary . If Googlebot discovers that your website has no index in place for certain URL parameters then it will simply ignore them rather than crawl through your entire site. This doesn't have any direct impact on rankings, but it can be useful information in determining whether or not you want certain URLs indexed by Google.
?output=embed - For the same reason that using parameters with "q=" will hurt your rankings , Google can't always access content on pages when URLs include this parameter . It's intended to help webmasters redirect their users to another site, but it's not automatically handled like other redirects and can lead to duplicate content issues. One potential workaround is to add a rel = canonical link to the page you're trying to index; simply add it under your <head> section and any problems should go away.
#! - If you're unfamiliar with this one then congratulations ! You've managed to come across a URL parameter that hasn't been abused or misused by spammers everywhere (except for maybe your website). Google has explained that they're aware of the possibility and while they don't discount any URL parameter (even ones like ?source= or &tbs=qdr:s ), they do consider it spammy.
&utm_ - Google made this clear when they updated their Webmaster Guidelines in 2011; if you're using a URL parameter for marketing purposes such as SEO, analytics, or affiliate tracking then add your domain (i.e., example.com ) after utm_ . Note that this should only be used when necessary, but most marketers will find it helpful for distinguishing between organic traffic and conversions resulting from PPC ads or referrals from social media sites etc. If you have reason to believe your site's been compromised with spammy link building then it may be necessary to remove all of the parameters you're using and simply rely on your Google Analytics URL, but if that's not an option then you could always shorten it by replacing ? with %3F .
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