Whether you are setting up a blog for the first time, optimizing for SEO, or just going about your normal blogging routine, you really should consider your permalink structure.

In this post, we will discuss:

  • Why you should use real words in your permalinks
  • What length of permalink is best
  • The importance of keywords in your permalink and H1
  • How to change your permalink structure

Using actual real words in your permalink is the best strategy

A permalink is your url or web address.

Permalink structure determines how your url or web address looks, reads, and how search engines interpret it.

Some possible permalink structures that you could use include page numbers (the WordPress default), folders, categories, dates, and more.

However, almost all SEOs agree that using actual words in your permalinks is the best all around strategy.

Actual words appear more natural and can be used to tell your reader what the post is going to be about before they click your link.

Which link are you more likely to click:

http://www.website.com/category/subcategory/folder/p?=18592853

or

website.com/an-awesome-article-about-life/

The latter not only uses actual words, but it tells you what the article is about. The former is just a confusing mess of jibberish from which you can’t really derive any sort of information about the post.

Many people think those links with odd characters and long strings of numbers look spammy. In fact, in Quick Sprout’s research, they found that just 0.194% of the top 100 results from 1,000 various industry keywords used these “extraneous” characters, so they may actually have a negative SEO impact on your site. Therefore, I would avoid use of such characters in your permalinks.

I should mention that use of categories with real names can be beneficial from an SEO standpoint when done through a silo link structure.

Also, while those links with numbers after them really look bad and don’t help Google at all, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use shortlinks (which typically use numbers). I have a post considering the SEO impact of shortlinks.

What length of permalink is best?

Google has in the past told us that they want your permalink to be 3 to 5 words long. Google’s SEO wizard Matt Cutts mentioned it in this interview.

We know that permalinks with more than five words are “being weighted less,” which translates into “your first five permalink keywords are a ranking factor.”

However, we are a little less clear about how many characters long a good permalink should be.

The sites listed below all give different numbers:

Backlinko: 50 characters

Moz: 50-60 characters

Gray Wolf SEO: 60 characters

John Doherty: 62-67 characters

Quick Sprout: 35-40 characters

It is really difficult to determine which of these approximations is correct. Two of those sites (Quick Sprout and Backlinko) did huge research projects to analyze results and they came up with fairly contrasting figures. I think we can at least look at these numbers and see that everyone is in the same range (35 to 67 characters) and there does seem to be correlations between shorter titles and better rankings.

However, as mentioned by Quick Sprout, even Google themselves aren’t following that character limit range I just discussed. They average somewhere over 50 words per permalink with the longest being 95. That would suggest that perhaps you just need to keep the character limit to under 100.

Using exact keywords in your title might not be as important as formerly thought

Not to long ago, everything in SEO was about optimizing towards keywords (well, that and links). That included the keywords that appear in your urls or permalinks and your heading tags.

However, fairly recent research has perhaps indicated that those keywords might not be as important as formerly thought.

In a 2014 Search Metrics study, they found that “Keyword in URL” and “Keyword in Domain” are decreasing in usage among the top ranked websites.

The latter isn’t a surprise, as Matt Cutts has in the past spoken about how exact match domains are now being heavily scrutinized. They should be, as people using them are often only doing so because they want to rank for that particular key phrase. It seems like the majority of exact match sites are aimed at selling something as an affiliate.

It is surprising that exact keyword usage is a declining ranking factor, however, once you read the rest of that study, it becomes clear that while exact keyword usage and optimization is becoming less important, that really is because Google is getting better and better at identifying what a page is about and the quality of that page.

The study also mentions how “proof” and “relevant” keywords played a major role in the quality and content of rankings. These are essentially additional keywords related to the targeted keyword. If your site is about a particular subject (or keyword), Google now expects it to use other related keywords.

So a web page trying to rank for “Tiger Woods” should be using proof keywords like “Golf,” “Nike,” and “Masters.” Presumably, the more related keywords showing, the better the site may rank. There no doubt is some kind of percentage usage within the article that any keyword shouldn’t go over, so don’t just try to stuff in keywords. If you write a long, detailed post, the keywords should end up in there naturally. If you really need a percentage to go off of, I would say any keyword density should be under 1%.

Another study backing up this claim of the decreasing importance of keywords in title tags comes from Backlinko. They said:

“We found a very small relationship between title tag keyword optimization and ranking. This correlation was significantly smaller than we expected, which may reflect Google’s move to Semantic Search.”

Honestly, I would still include your keyword in the title (and, as this is WordPress, the H1 tag), just do it naturally. If it can’t happen naturally, then don’t do it. Find other places to include your keywords. Writing long, quality content, promoting it, and getting backlinks are much more important than trying to cram keywords into your title.

Keywords are still a strong ranking signal and you should take care to optimize towards them, including your permalinks and headings.

How to change your permalink structure in WordPress

WARNING: If you change your permalink structure, it will change all your posts links. That means you either need to do redirects or any links using the old permalinks will now go to a 404 page. You also will need to have those pages re-indexed by search engines, which could result in significant traffic loss. The only reason to change your permalink structure is if you have a brand new site, or if your site is doing poorly and you want to make the change to get re-indexed and basically start again.

To change your permalink structure in WordPress, first login to your site (you need at least an admin level user role) and go to the dashboard.

From the dashboard, select settings from the left column and then choose permalinks.

This brings you to this screen:

WordPress-Permalink-Settings

You will want to either select Post name or Custom Structure.

Post name just shows the post titles. Category pages will use the structure category/topic, such as http://simplycompelling.com/category/seo/

If you want to use the silo site structure, you can choose custom and instead use a url structure of /%category%/%postname%/. This will result in all your posts first using the category a post is in, and then the post name. This can boost the category pages and lets you hit on the target keywords in your urls over and over, which many people believe gives you an SEO boost. While that is debatable, I don’t think it could hurt you as I highly doubt Google will ever order people to change their category names or give penalties for exact match category names. It simply is too useful to the user.

Conclusion

In this article, we discussed:

  • How using real words in your permalinks is preferable for both users and search engines
  • How shorter permalinks do better (3-5 words, under 100 characters)
  • The declining importance of keywords in the permalink or title tag
  • How to change your permalink structure

While optimizing permalinks isn’t an exact science, I hope this article at least provides some guidance as to what the best practices for permalink structure are. Let me know if you need any help or have questions or comments.