What should I know about changing my URL structure?

What is my URL structure?

WordPress gives you the power to choose how to structure the main links of your site. There are several default options available in the Settings > Permalinks page of the Dashboard. On top of this, with a bit of custom coding, almost anything is possible. 

We can call this your URL structure or Permalink structure, and they mean the same thing. Your Site Structure or Link Structure is a little different.

Here's the default options for WordPress Posts:

For the best search results we want to avoid default URL structures with numbers* as much as possible. We also want to include the post title, probably abbreviatedThat leaves us with just one good 'out of the box' solution: Post Name, and the option to customise whatever we want.

* This doesn't include in the post title itself, but the path leading to the post title.

Why is structure important?

Why is permalink structure important? It helps users and bots (like Google's search spiders) to understand the structure of your site. 

If you imagine each section of the link like a bucket of content, we'd expect to find similar goodies in that bucket. Just like at a lucky dip, you might have prizes for Star Wars fans in one bucket, and for Bladerunner fans in another bucket: while some gifts may be cross-overs, you don't want to mix that up too much. 

For most people, and bots, the "buckets" of the year, month or day a post was published isn't as helpful as the post title or category. Having the technical ID of the post in there is even less useful! 

What should I consider when choosing a permalink structure?

Two main options:

Most people, most of the time should choose simple "Post Name", but you might want to consider using Category > Post Name too. Check out this video from Google's Matt Cutts answering just that question: 

Avoiding Duplicate Content

If you choose to include categories in your URL structure, you have a little more to think about. In our lucky dip example, we may have a Harrison Ford biography that could go in both buckets. We have no inventory issues in the digital world, but we end up with two 'homes' for this story:

/star-wars/harrison-ford-bio
/bladerunner/harrison-ford-bio

Google would see that as duplicate content, and wouldn't know which one to rank first. People might also see both pages and link to them both, further diluting the search benefits. This is a duplicate content issue.

With the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin, they solve that dilemma by allowing a "primary" category to be chosen. That is used to do some technical magic and avoid this issue.

Changing Categories in the Future

What happens if you decide to change your site structure in the future? Instead of /star-wars and /bladerunner, you decide to combine them into /sci-fi/ ... every article that has been published will also need to be changed, redirected and monitored! 

/star-wars/harrison-ford-bio will have to be 301 redirected to /sci-fi/harrison-ford-bio.

While using categories does give a better user experience, in my personal opinion, it doesn't necessarily help your search engine optimisation and adds to your maintenance burden.

How complex is it to change? 

The complexity of migration is greatly lower if moving from a date-based structure to a post-name structure. In these cases, we can apply a general rule to remove the pattern of numbers and slashes from the URL, and redirect the old to the new universally.

If changing to a category/post-name structure, we have to manually match the old and new URLs, and create custom redirects for each individual page.

If changing to and from other structures, things can be quite changeable, depending on how it was set up.

The engineering is only part of the puzzle though. As part of our redirect package, we break down the change into five parts:

  1. Strategy 
  2. Testing
  3. Deployment
  4. Monitoring
  5. Tidy up

The redirect package is good for corporate and brochure sites, most blogs and small- to medium-sized e-commerce companies.  

Rewards of changing URL from a date-based structure

There are significant benefits to changing your URL structure, especially if you are currently using a date-based URL structure. 

Firstly, we avoid the problem of useless buckets of information.

Secondly, shorter URLs generally outperform long ones. For some reason, we are more likely to click on shorter links!

Thirdly, we avoid the problem of refreshing content -- and this is the big one! If you have a bio of Harrison Ford that you first published in 2007, but updated every few months, two things might happen:

a. You have to leave the published date alone, so when people see your link, they think it's a decade or more out of date! 

/2007/10/harrison-ford-bio won't get my click in 2017 and beyond! 

b. You have to constantly rewrite each url for each update, making your page speed slow, and heavily increasing the amount of work you do each update. 

/2007/10/harrison-ford-bio becomes /2007/11/harrison-ford-bio becomes /2008/06/harrison-ford-bio becomes /2009/03/harrison-ford-bio ... ad nauseum.

Removing dates from your URL structure frees you from that restraint.

General rewards of changing URL

Most people start thinking about changing their link structure for one reason: better search results. While there are correlations between link structure and search results, it's only one part of the total SEO puzzle. 

While removing dates is almost always a good thing, I'd be more cautious about changing another URL structure because it seems like a good idea! Although fixing a poor link structure can be a very good thing, for user experience and search results, there are quite a few risks involved.

Take advantage of a professional search marketing company to audit your site, or talk to us about our Search Audit or Redirect Packages. Depending on the size and complexity of your site, these may be good, lower-cost alternatives. 

Risks

The main risk and reward of changing URL structure is the potential for higher or lower search traffic.

In almost all cases we see a temporary fall or lack of growth in search engine traffic after a change like this. The more content, the slower the recovery. Because of that, making the change during a slow season is highly recommended. For retailers, this might be after the November to January holiday sales season; for travel companies, during the winter. 

The newer your site, and the less content you have, the easier it is to recover from this temporary fall, so make the jump earlier rather than later! 

During that time, normal content creation and link building should continue; don't be discouraged! If the change was correctly done, we should start to see new momentum picking up within weeks or a few months.

During this time, the logs should be monitored for 'not found' errors and each of those manually resolved with fresh redirects. 

In some cases, changing permalinks can be detrimental to the whole site for a long period of time; this is especially true of very large sites. In those cases, it can make sense to migrate various sections of the site at different times. This allows bots to discover and update content in a more stately fashion... at the cost of adding to the time and expense to the project.

Changing links is not something to be taken lightly, but not something to be feared either: if it makes good strategic sense to do it, go ahead!

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