Google’s “New” Static/Dynamic URL Policy is Nothing New

There has been some buzz in the SEO community during the last few days regarding Google’s recent, apparent shift in policy towards Dynamic URLs vs. static URLs. I’m going to talk about the issue, what Google is saying and show you their new policy is actually a bunch of one-sided fluff worth about as much as Washington Mutual’s stock price:

The SEO issue of Dynamic vs Static URL’s

For a long time people have clamored over how to properly format web page URL paths to gain maximum search engine benefit. Typically you can either format URL’s in a "dynamic" looking fashion:

www.domain.com/index.php?p=directory&pn=page-name-here&id=23&q=search

or in a "static" looking fashion, like so:

www.domain.com/directory/page-name-here

Obviously, the second format looks a bit cleaner and over the years we’ve heard a lot from the SEO community that URL’s should be static looking without extra, unneeded GET variables – and while true, is not the entire story. We’re now hearing authoritative SEO websites reeling about Google’s blog post as if it were a major surprise:

"Does [Google's post] mean SEOs and webmasters should stop rewriting their dynamic URLs? Would I personally recommend that? I think so, based on what I have been seeing recently from Google… Again, this is a huge change in SEO philosophy and practice."

Google’s post is actually not a surprise and isn’t a huge change in SEO philosophy.

As it turns out and to those in tune with search, there isn’t anything in inherently wrong with a dynamic looking URL, as Google spells out in their blog. On the flip side, as most webmasters know and I’ll point out later on, dynamic looking URL paths can generate trouble for your site.

What Google is saying about static vs dynamic URL’s

Google is saying, "look, the way in which you can go about formatting your URL path’s is not a black and white world when it comes to SEO. There is no evil in serving up dynamic looking URL’s so long as they don’t create duplicate content and you can remove all irrelevant information from the URL" – and this makes a lot of sense because Google only wants relevant information as it helps them to create more quality search results and ultimately more shelf space for advertising purposes.

So really, nothing has changed. Google just decided to make the URL formatting issue a little more clear for those that may not understand the benefits and drawbacks of static vs dynamic URL’s.

What Google is NOT saying

Google is not saying that if you currently rewrite dynamic URL’s you are doing something wrong – on the contrary, if you or your webmaster rewrite URL’s you’re probably doing so because of the benefits to your human visitors as well as guiding the way in which a search engines views your web page, through descriptive, informative page URL’s. Google just wants to avoid webmasters who think they need to mindlessly rewrite dynamic URL’s because it’s "the thing to do" but end up doing more harm than good as in the following example:

www.example.com/article/bin/answer.foo?language=en&answer=3&sid=98971298178906&query=URL

getting changed to

www.example.com/article/bin/answer.foo/en/3/98971298178906/URL

is a totally pointless way of generating a URL rewrite and offers no value to human visitors or search engines. A much better way of rewriting the URL would be something like

www.example.com/articles/title-of-your-article

if you are able to make it that clean. On the other hand, if maintenance deems too much work or too costly then sticking with the dynamic URL version is recommended by Google – just make sure and strip out the extra junk that a search engine doesn’t need.

What this means for webmasters

I wouldn’t sweat it. It appears bloggers are saying Google has shifted big on their URL policy but they really have not at all. I’d actually be a little happier than I was before their post. Why?

  • Google is just clarifying a technical issue to help webmasters understand URL issues
  • If anything you can rest easier since Google has now confirmed that they are just fine with dynamic looking URL’s (so long as irrelevant information and potentially dangerous GET variables are removed).

In response to Google’s post, Search Engine Round Table is quoted as saying:

"…Google can learn more information about the page and what it is suppose to deliver based on the URL structure."

Which I think is true, but don’t forget that modern search engines base their relevancy algorithms largely on inbound link analysis and so it’s hard to beat the benefits of inbound links to a page, which usually give a better understanding of what a web page is about, especially popular pages. Oh and if a search engine can’t understand what a page is about based on the content and or title tag then it probably is not a very good search engine at all.

Who should use dynamic URL format?

If you’re thinking about switching from your current URL path format, think first:

  • If the costs outweigh the benefits of making the switch to dynamic looking URL’s then why bother?
  • Don’t forget you’ll need to 301 redirect your all your old URL’s to the new ones.
  • Remember that a dynamic URL path format is going to be more difficult for people to remember, link and return to. You might give in to Google saying they can learn more about your page but don’t forget about your visitors – they’re the ones who link to you (not Google).

Sites that might benefit from sticking with dynamic URL’s are sites that have a huge number of pages, e-commerce shopping sites for example, but also have a limited IT budget for trouble shooting the move to a static looking URL path format. I can’t really think of a situation where a perfectly good static URL format would need to be changed to dynamic, it’s just not necessary.

What to watch out for with respect to dynamic URL’s

Aside from Google’s praise for extra information on dynamic looking URL’s, there are some drawbacks you should be aware of IF you are thinking about switching or staying with dynamic URL’s:

  • Dynamic URL’s can create duplicate content situations on your website
  • Dynamic URL’s are a bit more difficult to remember
  • Dynamic URL’s can reveal the internal mechanics of your web server and can open up potential security flaws
  • You can’t always fit keywords into your URL like you could with static versions
  • Dynamic URL’s don’t look so hot on marketing material outside of the web (as Rand Fishkin pointed out).

Where to go from here?

If you’re still wondering weather or not you should make the move from dynamic to static URL’s then you probably don’t need to do anything at this point. If you’ve got a system that works, stick with it. Remember, Google is NOT telling you to move to dynamic URL’s, they are simply saying "dumb webmasters, please don’t automatically use URL rewriting without thinking about what you are doing", and that’s all :)

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12 Comments

  1. Russ Jones

    I think there are a couple of additional reasons why you should use rewrites… 1. Google isn’t the only search engine: others may continue to have problems with dynamic URLs. 2. Clean, keyword based rewrites will allow Google to extract keywords from the most common type of link pointing to your pages, where the anchor text is the URL itself. 3. Clean, keyword based rewrites will allow Google to highlight the keywords in the search results (they bold matched words in the Title, Description and URL), which will draw extra attention to your listing and increase Click Through Rate.

  2. Jiff Willard

    No doubt about it, one day Google is going to rule the world! Just wait and see.

  3. Dan

    I think the long term overall trend for search engines is that they are ranking pages higher that provide higher value to the end user. Value is a subjective term, but in addition to providing authoritative content (as measured by inbound links from other authoritative sites as PageRank does) I wouldn’t be surprised if it came to mean things like: spelling, grammar, punctuation, high content to code ratios, faster response times, lower overall page weights, valid markup (so it is likely to be usable by more browsers), better accessibility and generally anything else that improves the user experience. Clean, shorter, “hackable” URLs that reflect the content are something that fits into that theory since they improve the user experience since they are easier to remember and easier for the end user to determine the relevancy of the content to their needs prior to clicking on the link.

  4. Mike Shannon

    Dan, I think you’re right. Search engines want to show the most relevant information to the given query and a lot of the ranking metrics are probably based on usability factors in addition to traditional quality signals such as links. URL’s are only a piece of the ranking algorithms.

  5. Tim

    “is a totally pointless way of generating a URL rewrite and offers no value to human visitors” Not true; it offers several (minor) benefits. It doesn’t have any ? or & characters, so it’s easier to speak and hear. It’s shorter, so it takes less time to type. It’s even under 80 characters now, so it’s less likely to get auto-word-wrapped if somebody sends it in an email.

  6. Mike Shannon

    Tim, I think URL re-writes can be a great way to make URL’s easier for people and robots to understand. In this case a URL such as: http://www.example.com/article/bin/answer.foo?language=en&answer=3&sid=98971298178906&query=URL getting changed to http://www.example.com/article/bin/answer.foo/en/3/98971298178906/URL is still using “bin”, “answer.foo”, “URL” and “98971298178906″ which are irrelevant pieces of information that probably don’t need to be included in the rewritten URL. I do agree that shorter URL’s are generally better.

  7. Dennis Wong

    Hi all, I’m currently building a website, and I’m not sure if I’m considered “savvy” webmaster or not. I am using a UrlRewriting solution from “urlrewriting.net”. There’s numerous articles on another UrlRewriting solution from “urlrewriter.net” (please note that this is a different solution from the one I’m using), and that Google does not index pages using this UrlRewriting solution. How about the one I’m using (from “urlrewriting.net”)? Does anyone know if Google indexes these pages? Thanks!

  8. Mike Shannon

    Dennis, URL rewriting usually happens at the server side and not the client side level. Keep in mind that a search engine spider will see things from the client side so those spiders will not be able to tell the difference from one server side URL rewrite solution to another. Apparently, http://www.dotnetkicks.com/ uses the urlrewriter.net solution and their pages are indexed in Google: http://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Adotnetkicks.com&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a I’m sure your solution will probably work just fine as well.

  9. Mayio Seo

    Rewrites are meant to make life for both users and webmasters easier. I think everyone should just start using a uniform system. Great points of discussion, Mike.

  10. Pravish Thomas

    HI, Everybody here do note that URL Rewrite is the best when it comes DYNAMIC to STATIC URL Rewrite. Converting from DYnamic to Static HTML would make it easier to get indexed in 1st point. 2nd the more ur pages get indexed the more u get traffic and sales converted. 3RD U get More control once u rewrite the URLS – but must me done in a correct way to avoid duplication. 4TH URL Rewrite is really powerful where u can optimize the links itself. Note: Only need is to take care about duplications of content pages when URL rewritted. Robots.txt can be used to block such pages. Rewrites rock and we have already done the experiment with success. Dynamic urls won’t work it will get over ranked by Static URLS, so its best to optimize ur Rewritted URLS. Thanx

  11. cool b

    Interesting, google says dynamic url is not a problem as long as it is clean but most of the first ten results of google SERP will have search engine friendly urls, isn’t it sad? fyi i have bookmarked this article at http://www.webyam.com

  12. Daisey Matt

    Very Useful information , this is both good reading for, have quite a few good key points, and I learn some new stuff from it too, thanks for sharing your information. regards

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