Not-So-Friendly URLs

You may think your website has Friendly URLs – let’s stack it up to what Google says and expects.

There is a lot of confusion in the automotive industry around the definition of a friendly URL.  Many dealers (and website providers) seem to think that if you stuff a bunch of keywords into a URL, that this somehow makes it “friendly”.

When you stack this up besides what Google actually recommends, you can see a big difference!  Very recently (2010) Google published a 32 page book called the Search Engine Optimization Start Guide to help clarify some of the dreadful misinformation that exists in the SEO community.  Although this book, as its name implies, is only a “starter guide”- it is embarrassing how many websites don’t even follow the simple rules found in it.

If you are a car dealer – take a look at your own website and see how well it stacks up to some of these recommendations from the ultimate authority – Google themselves!

The information on friendly URLs begins on page 8 of the book.  Here are a few of the highlights if you don’t have time to read it for yourself:

  • Visitors may be intimidated by extremely long and cryptic URLs that contain few recognizable words
  • If your URL contains relevant words, this provides user and search engines with more information about the page
  • Avoid using lengthy URLs with unnecessary parameters and session IDs
  • Avoid choosing generic page names like “Page1.html”
  • Avoid using excessive keywords like “baseball-cards-baseball-cards-baseballcards.htm”
  • Create a simple directory structure – Using a directory structure that organizes your content well and makes it easy for visitors to know where they’re at on your site. Try using your directory structure to indicate the type of content found at that URL
  • Avoid having deep nesting of subdirectories like “…/dir1/dir2/dir3/dir4/dir5/dir6/page.html”
  • Avoid using directory names that have no relation to the content in them

For those of you who aren’t as technical – there’s one detail worth mentioning here.  When this book talks about “directories” or “folders”- it means words separated by a “/”character in a web address or URL.  The “/” character has a very special meaning to computers.  It is very different from a “plus” (+), a “dash”(-), and “underscore”(_), a “question mark”(?), an “ampersand”(&), a “pound sign”(#) or other characters you might see in a URL.  Only the slash (/) implies the organization that Google and others are looking for in this book.

Even at that, the “/” character also should mean that if you chop off the URL just before or after the slash, you should get meaningful content.  If this doesn’t work correctly, the slash character is as meaningless as the others mentioned above.

The example that Google uses to drive this home is from a fictional baseball card site – although the analogy to a car dealer website is pretty easy to see.  Here’s what the baseball directory structure looks like:

Some Bad Examples

Now, let’s take a look at some good & bad examples found in on car dealer websites (surveyed now in November 2010).  The dealer domain names and vendors have been removed to protect the innocent and the guilty.  I hate to point it out – but these ARE from some of the very most popular dealer website providers on the market.

Bad Example #1

(AutoFusion: http://www.tiptonhonda.com)

/details/New+2010+Honda+Fit+Manual+JHMGE8G28AS017378+El%20Cajon

There is so much wrong with this, it’s hard to begin!  Not only is the word “details” meaningless and never searched, if you try to visit the details folder on this particular site – it returns an error!  Car buyers may not do this – but a Google spider will.  All the “+” signs do nothing to create structure.  The VIN right in the middle (separating the trim) is just sloppy.  The “%20” is a rookie mistake from leaving a space in a URL.  There is also no location anywhere in the URL – this could be a car in Boston or Bangladesh!

Bad Example #2

(Reynolds: http://planoacura.mcdavid.com)

/new-inventory/2010_Acura_MDX_Plano_2HNYD2H51AH534120.aspx

You might think that the “new-inventory” folder is good structure – unless you tried to visit it on this dealer’s website – it returned an error.  This vendor & dealer have used underscore (_) characters to improve readability – but they do not add any structure.  Again, we have a big ugly VIN and the meaningless “.aspx” just looks geeky and intimidating.  The location is conspicuously absent again.

Bad Example #3

(Dealer.com http://www.vandergriffacura.com)

/new/Acura/2011-Acura-MDX-ee12c9570a0a0064003bf5e8c313195f.htm

On the surface, there seems to be some good in this one – but once again – a search engine spider will see right through it.   The VIN is intimidating – could be mistaken for a SessionId or other meaningless text Google warns against.  The word  “Acura” is in the URL twice – Google warns against this.  Finally, and worst of all, if you try to visit the folders, you get some terrifying results.  For example, the path /new/Acura returned a broken page and just /new returned the home page.  Once again – we have no idea where this car is.

Bad Example #4

(eCarList http://www.toyotaofplano.com)

/web/vehicle/582248/2010-Toyota-4Runner-RWD%204dr%20V6%20Limited-Plano-TX?condition_id=10425

You should be getting the hang of this by now.  It’s easy to spot the many problems with this format.  For example, the word “web” has no value.  The word “vehicle” has very little value (no one types it!).  Your guess is as good as mine why there is a folder (fake at that) called 582248.  After that we get keywords stuffed together with dashes – and worse – lots of %20 characters.  Once again, this is what happens when a website doesn’t care enough to remove spaces from the URLs – it is a problem that has been around since the beginning of the internet and some people still don’t get it.  You have to admit – it looks pretty scary.   Now – imagine you are a car buyer.  How do you feel about a car that has been marked with “condition_Id=10425”- is that some kind of inidicator as to what its condition is (perhaps damaged?)  We just don’t  know – but it does nothing to make the URL more friendly.

Now things go downhill fast on this site.

Visiting just part of the URL causes all kinds of problems:

/web/vehicle/582248 – returns the same page as the full URL – this is called duplicate content and Google does not like it

/web/vehicle – returns a listing of all used inventory – not bad except that the vehicle we were looking at earlier was new!

/web – returns a blank template page

Some Good Examples

Here, I will name names – these folks deserve some recognition for their efforts.  It probably goes without saying – but building out a folder structure, like Google recommends, is much more labor intensive and expensive.  That’s probably why so many sites just stuff keywords into file names and hope people think this makes them “friendly”.  You will notice that all of these except one is a national aggregator – these guys often spend the big bucks to do technology right.  You may find yourself competing for them in search engine rankings too.  Don’t worry,  there’s an honest, but self-serving plug for ClickMotive Fusion websites in this section too.

Good Example #1 – Vast.com

http://www.vast.com/cars/used-for-sale-Chevrolet.Tahoe/trim-LT/location-Houston–TX

Good use of folders.  Location included.  No mystery characters.  Has good “buying words” like “for-sale”.  About the only valid critiques ere would be that the Tahoe is a truck – and it’s located under the  “cars” folder.  This is not bad – and may be intentional since many people refer to cars, trucks, SUVs,  vans,  etc. collectively as just  “cars”.

This structure also goes away when you actually visit a specific unit – but again – this is a very good example.

Good Example #2 – Cars.com (and a bad example too)

http://www.cars.com/honda/civic/2010/

Wow – this is clean!  Easy to see just what you’re going to get if you go to any of these folders – and they all actually work!  This is the research section of this site.  When you actually search inventory – the URLs are not nearly as nice.  Here’s one:

http://www.cars.com/go/search/detail.jsp?tracktype=newcc&csDlId=&csDgId=&listingId=50671953&listingRecNum=0&criteria=sf1Dir%3DDESC%26alMdId%3D20823%26mkId%3D20017%26stkTyp%3DN%26mdId%3D20823%26rd%3D30%26crSrtFlds%3DstkTypId-feedSegId-mkId-mdId%26zc%3D75093%26rn%3D0%26PMmt%3D1-1-0%26stkTypId%3D28880%26sf2Dir%3DASC%26sf1Nm%3Dprice%26sf2Nm%3Dlocation%26alMkId%3D20017%26rpp%3D50%26feedSegId%3D28705&aff=national

Good Example #3 – ClickMotive Fusion

Here I’ve used a San Antonio based Ford dealership running on ClickMotive Fusion.  I feel obliged to point out that ClickMotive Fusion Mobile runs on the same platform – so it will have a folder structure and friendly URLs that are similar to the desktop sites – this is extremely rare with mobile websites.  Let’s take apart the URL:

http://saford.com/San-Antonio/For-Sale/New/Ford/F-150/2010–Black-Truck/3302213/

Notice, there are still keywords present – that’s needed for the search engine to understand what a single page is about – but notice that the URL itself is organized into a meaningful folder structure.  The one cryptic number is way out to the right – and as short as it can be (not a VIN!).

If you remove portions of the URL, it helps the spider understand not just what the page is about, but how it is related to other pages in the site.  For example, the URL above can be chopped off one folder at a time to produce results like this:

http://saford.com/San-Antonio/For-Sale/New/Ford/F-150/ this returns all new Ford F-150s

http://saford.com/San-Antonio/For-Sale/New/Ford – this returns all new Fords

http://saford.com/San-Antonio/For-Sale/New/Ford/Truck/ – this returns all new Ford trucks

http://saford.com/San-Antonio/For-Sale/New – this returns all new inventory

In future versions, we plan to have /San-Antonio/For-Sale return the sales department page and just /San-Antonio will return the map page.   These features are still under development, but in the meantime, these pages do a Google-recommended  “301-redirect”- that means, we tell the spider I computer language how to navigate correctly from this folder without producing any duplicate content, blank template pages, or error messages.

Summary

Now you should be able to understand what Google means when it says “friendly URLs”- it may be very different from what you have on your website or what your vendor says a friendly URL is.  The reasons to make sure your website has friendly URLs are very clear!

  • Google says it’s the best way to do it
  • Consumers are not confused or intimidated by scary URLs
  • It’s easier to make third-part links to relevant material inside your site for link building campaigns

And, there are plenty of reasons to avoid using a site that does not follow these rules:

  • When Google detects abuse of a feature, it has been known to change its algorithm to decrease rankings or remove websites that have this abuse detected.  Google pointed out that lots-of-words-separated-by-dashes-to-create-content is not the right way to go.  If they ever decide to downgrade sites with an algorithm, my money is that they will hit the ones that have the most characters like -, +, _, ?, &, etc.  The only character that’s safe is the “/”- which means organizing folder
  • Google does not publish their ranking algorithms, but it is well known (and stated outright by Google) that organization of the site can play a role in it.  To be organized, this means the folders in the URL must mean something.  That means they must return meaningful content when you visit them.  Whether car buyers do this or not is not of concern.  The spiders will do it – and the spiders need to like what they see to keep them from thinking this is an unprofessional, badly organized site.

If you would like to see even more examples of how ClickMotive Fusion uses real friendly URLs and not just keyword stuffed filenames – contact our sales department for a free demo by calling 888-518-5513.

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