Wednesday, March 17, 2010

is it worth pursuing search engine friendly URLs ?

As someone who's running a few e-commerce sites, I'm always on the look for ways to attract traffic to my sites. One of the best sources of traffic are search engines, and the key to attract traffic from them is to observe the best SEO, or search engine optimization, practices.

One of those practices widely touted was to use SEFU, or search engine friendly URLs. That means avoiding dynamic URLs, that contain a query segment with parameters (anything following the '?' sign, in the form 'name=value', maybe separated by '&') and instead use static URLs that contain targeted keywords, separated by '-'. There are many ways to translate a dynamic URL into a static one. I used url rewriting capabilities provides by the mod_rewrite module of Apache web server. Yet I'd been thinking, if it's so easy to make this translation, why would the search engines make such a big fuss about. After all, the content they get is the same, so it shouldn't make any difference.

Yet it makes all the difference in the world. You see, when you use a dynamic URL, usually with cryptic values as parameters, like product numbers, or session id, or whatever, you make no clear assertion about the content the URL is pointing too. That is, a subsequent fetching of the same URL may produce an entirely different content, since after all it's the result of a dynamic script, right ? The content may change based on internal state like the date or time, or based on the parameters passed. So understandably the search engines are reluctant to place too much weight on the content. Yes, you could use the title tag, or metadata to describe the content, but still, nothing guarantees that the mapping between the URL and the content will stay the same.

On the other hand, when you use a static URL, with embedded keywords, you add semantics to the URL, making its destination clear, giving it a sense of permanence. Now that's something that the search engines can bank on.

So I changed the product URLs on my site to be SEFU and the results were excellent. The amount of traffic from search engines doubled and the crawling activity kicked into high gear. All in all I'm pretty pleased with the results.

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