The Beauty of Short, Predictable URLs

It’s an in-joke amongst web developers that “the more expensive the content management system, the more incomprehensible the ‘URLs’ will be”. In other words, if your website has web page addresses (URLs) which go on forever and are full of meaningless letters and numbers, someone once paid rather too much for the site to be created. It’s an amusing observation (for web developers, at least) but has a large degree of truth in it.

In an ideal world, the page on your website about fast blue widgets would be www.bluewidgetcompany.co.uk/fast-blue-widgets. It would not be three times as long as that, contain 7 forward slashes and a huge string of gobbledegook letters and numbers. It shouldn’t even finish in “html” or “aspx” or whatever.

Yet many of you will be stuck with that, until your next website rebuild in 2019, when you can actually put this requirement in the specification. But for now, does it matter?

Well, yes. And there are three reasons why. The first is that unless your web page addresses are as simple as possible (i.e with just one forward slash and the bit after that being in plain English), then you can forget about anyone ever typing it in. You might get away, in a letter or brochure, with asking people to type in www.bluewidgetcompany.co.uk/fast-blue-widgets, but that’s about as complex as is likely to work. The second reason is that plain English URLs give potential viewers confidence that the page will be about what they hope it’ll be about. There’s research to show that people using search engines pay quite a deal of attention to the URL (in green) next to each result. They want to see the domain, and they want to see if they can get advance confirmation about the page contents from the bit after the domain.

Sites which are stuck with non-human-friendly URL formats should consider setting up shortened redirects to their most important pages. The BBC does this with www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho and my local council does this with www.cambridge.gov.uk/bins. It’s not hard to do, and your website manager/designer will be able to implement it quite easily. And that brings us on to the final reason why shortened URLs are important: because it allows people to guess them. The BBC and Cambridge City Council pages are perfect examples of this. Your site could do the same.

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