URL stands for Universal Resource Locator, which is just a fancy name for an address. But a URL is more than an address; it is also a set of directions. Like directions to your home, there are many different ways to get to any given location on the internet. A left then a right, or a right then a left—each gets me to the same corner.
When we think of the URL as directions, it seems pretty simple to understand, but when we think of the URL as an address (as Google often does), you can get multiple variations of the same address. Often, that is when problems arise.
No doubt you have noticed that some URLs begin with “www,” while others do not. Some URLs end with “/index.html” and some end with “/home.asp”. They are all different, but they will usually take you to the same page of a site. As a user, you should experience no problems if any given page on your site has multiple URL addresses because no matter which address you use, you wind up at the right page. However, it can have dramatic consequences on SEO and your rankings! Unless you make it clear which URL version you prefer, search engines will index all versions separately, even though they look like the same page. From a search engine’s point of view, each URL address is a unique page, and they will be treated and indexed as such.
Think of each version of your site like a nick name. If your name is Michael, then maybe your friends call you Mike, your uncles call you Mickey, and your Grandma calls you Mikey. A computer, no matter how advanced, may not know that Michael, Mike, Mickey and Mikey are the same person. If you do not correct the issue, then you may see 50% of your links go to one version and 50% go to another. This will water down your link authority, and it poses some real issues to your SEO strategy.
So now we understand that having multiple URL addresses may cause problems in your SEO strategy. Now you need to figure out if your site has a problem with multiple URLs. To illustrate how this is done, let’s say that I own a site called People Who Love Football.com. I’ve got three different URL versions for my home page: www.peoplewholovefootball.com, peoplewholovefootball.com, and peoplewholovefootball.com/home.asp. I want to make sure that my SEO efforts are all directed at my preferred address: www.peoplewholovefootball.com. To find out if my different URLs are causing a problem, I would type my three URL variations into my web address bar. If they all resolve to www.peoplewholovefootball.com, then I don’t have a problem. If I type in peoplewholovefootball.com/home.asp, the page loads, and the URL doesn’t change, then I’ve got a multiple URL problem.
Another example: When I type in google.com, the page loads and the address bar shows that I’m at www.google.com. The URL changes to the “www” version because Google has set up a redirect that shows that www.google.com is the default URL or the “preferred” version of their site. Since all the different versions of google.com resolve to www.google.com, you can tell that Google does not have a problem with multiple URLs.
If you see that your site is not redirecting to one version, you will need to correct the issue. There are two steps to solve the issue, and you will need to do both. First, you’ll need to set up a 301 redirect. Then you’ll need to set up a canonical tag for the URL that you want to establish as your preferred URL.
This automatically redirects all visitors to their preferred URL, no matter what version of your web address they typed in. To do a 301 redirect, call your hosting company and ask them to do a 301 redirect from any related URLs that are not redirecting to your preferred URL.
This will tell search engines, “Of all the addresses that point to this page, this one is the most useful. Please prioritize it in search results.” Have your webmaster or builder specify the canonical version by inserting a canonical tag into the version you prefer.
Also, if you have Google webmaster tools, you will be able to tell Google which version you prefer right away by following these steps:
- In the Webmaster Tools Home page, click the site you want.
- Under site configuration, click settings.
- In the preferred domain section, select the option you want.
“Once you tell us your preferred domain name, we use that information for all future crawls of your site and indexing refreshes. For instance, if you specify your preferred domain as http://www.example.com, and we find a link to your site that is formatted as http://example.com, we follow that link as http://www.example.com instead. In addition, we’ll take your preference into account when displaying the URLs. If you don’t specify a preferred domain, we may treat the www and non-www versions of the domain as separate references to separate pages.”
So, you may have spent hours building and adding content to your site and even more time creating authority on the web by building and nurturing your back links, all in an effort to impress the search engines. But, your efforts may be watered down if you have not selected the preferred version of your site. There are many pieces to the ranking puzzle; this may be one that you have overlooked, and it may be what’s holding you back from that top page rank.
If you have any questions regarding preferred URLs, don’t hesitate to contact one of our SEO experts at Boostability.