URL parameters indicate how the search engines handle your website parts to crawl the info they want more effectively. It is in the folders within your URL strings, i.e., yoursite.com/folder-a/ etc. Many times, the website owners and marketers may be using robot.txt files to give directives to search engines as to which pages of the website needs to be indexed to avoid wrong indexing and content duplication.
URL parameters are also known as query strings and URL variables, etc., which are simply a portion of the URL that ends with a question mark. These parameters comprise of key-value pair, which is separated by an ‘=’ sign. There may be multiple parameters on a single page by using the ampersand sign.
The URL parameters are most effectively used when websites show the same content at various URLs. The most common situation where it occurs is while the customer is navigating through a shopping website. The URL parameters also dilute the ranking signals and create a waste crawl budget. In this guide, we will learn some smart tricks for SEOs to handling URL parameters effectively.
Parameters are the favorite of analytics and developers but can often be a nightmare for the SEOs. In a typical e-commerce website or other customer-centric portals, there could be endless combinations of various parameters to create hundreds of different URL variations for almost the same content. These URL parameters play a critical role in the user experience. So, one should clearly understand it from the SEO point of view and manage it in an SEO-friendly manner.
For example, a couple of uses cases for URL parameters are
?utm_medium=social,?sessionid=123 used for tracking
?product=small-red-widget, categoryid=134 for identifying
?query=users-query,?search=drop-down-option for searching etc.
URL Parameters related to SEO Issues
Creating duplicate content
URL parameters may not change the page content, but a reordered page may not be very different from the original. A URL with tracking tags and the session IDs can be identical to the original one. For example, some URLs to return the widget collection –
URL parameters for tracking: https://www.yourwebsitename.com/widgets?sessionID=12345
Reordering the parameter: https://www.yourwebsitename.com/widgets?sort=newest
Identifying the parameter: https://www.yourwebsitename.com?category=widgets
Searching the parameter: https://www.yourwebsite.com/products?search=widget
These are some of the URLs for the same content. So, if you have the same over each category on the website, it will soon add up and grow huge. The real challenge here is that the search engines treat each of these parameter URLs in new pages. So, they can see different variations of the same page. These may act as duplicate content targeting the same keyword or semantic topic.
This type of duplication may cause you to adequately filter out the search results and lead to a situation called keyword cannibalization. It will tend to downgrade the overall view that Google gets about the quality of your site as the add-on URLs may not add any value to your page.
URL Parameters wasting the Crawl Budget
Another trouble caused by URL parameters is that these pages can drain your crawl budget but degrading your website’s ability to index the pages and further increase sever load. As per Google’s spokesperson –
“The URLs which contain multiple parameters may cause trouble for the crawlers by creating a huge number of unnecessary URLs that point to identical content on the same site. With this, Googlebot will consume a lot more bandwidth than needed or will be unable to index the content on the website.”
URL Parameters may split the signals for Page Ranking
The social shares and links to it may come in different versions if there are multiple permutations for the content of the same page. This will dilute the ranking signals, and when the crawler gets confused, it may become unsure of the other competing pages to the index for the same query.
URL Parameters may reduce the URL clickability
Usually, the parameter URLs are primarily unsightly and difficult to read. So, these don’t seem to be very much trustworthy and such links are less likely to be clicked. This may also adversely impact page performance. CTR can influence rankings and also as it is less clickable on social media, in emails when you copy and paste in forums or anyplace else the full URL may be displayed.
Even though it may have a little impact on the amplification of a single page, each of the social sharing, tweets, link, email, and mention of the same may mostly matter to the domain. Poor readability of the URL may finally contribute to a drop in the overall brand engagement. So, it is critical to know each parameter on the website. However, there are chances that the developers may not keep a complete to-date listing of this. This may make it difficult for you to find out all the URL parameters. If this is an issue you face, here are some smart methods to do it:
- Run the crawler by using a tool (i.e., Screaming Frog) and search for the ‘question marks’ in the URL.
- Next, look at the URL Parameters Tool of the Google Search Console to which Google ads the query strings as it finds them.
- Then review the log files to see if the Googlebot crawls the parameter-based URLs for the page.
- You may also search with the site: inurl: advanced operators:
- Check the All Pages report of Google Analytics: Search for “?” to view how the users consume the parameters. Make sure that the query parameters of URLs aren’t excluded in view settings.
Once you have this data, one can easily decide how to handle each URL parameter from the SEO viewpoint.
Ways to handle URL parameters
Let’s next explore a few smart ways to handle the URL parameters for best SEO results.
Get rid of all unwanted parameters
Try to create a URL mapping of all parameters and functions of each. There are high chances that you may find out many parameters that have no relevant function anymore. As of late, you can quickly identify the users using cookies than using the parameter of sessionIDs. So, this parameter need not have to exist anymore. Also, those parameters which caused by technical debt must be eliminated at the first point.
Use the keys only one time
Usage of a single key is another crucial point to note in terms of URL parameter handling. Try to avoid applying more than one parameter with a similar parameter name with another value. For the options of multi selections, it is ideal to combine different values following a single key.
Avoid having any empty values
The golden rule of handling URL parameters is that a parameter must be added to the URL only if there is a value of the function. Never permit the parameter keys to get attacked if the value remains blank.
Order URL parameters
If a URL parameter gets reordered, then such pages may get interpreted by the search engines as the same. The order of parameter is not a big deal from the content point of view, but each such combination can burn down your crawl budget and split the ranking signals. So, you should avoid such issues by instructing the developers to build a script to maintain consistency in the parameter order, regardless of how users select them. For this, you can start with any random translating parameters, by identifying, doing pagination, and layering and ordering of each and to the tracking of the parameters.
Doing this will allow you to use the crawl budget more efficiently and also avoid content duplication issues. It can also help consolidate the ranking signals to a limited number of pages. This method is the right fit for any parameter type. However, there are some disadvantages also for doing this as it may consume a moderate amount of implementation time technically.
Rel=”Canonical” for URL parameter handling
The link attribute of rel=”canonical” is to call out the pages with similar content as other pages on the website. It will encourage the search engines to effectively consolidate ranking signals to a URL, which is specified as canonical.
One can easily rel=canonical the URLs, which are parameter-based to a URL that you optimized for SEO to do tracking by reordering the identified parameters. However, this method isn’t apt when parameter page content does not closely match the canonical like pagination, translating, searching, or other significant parameters for filtering.
Unlike the URL parameters ordering, rel=canonical is comparatively easier in terms of technical implementation. It will also help to protect against the issue of duplicate content. Doing this will consolidate all SEO ranking signals to the specified canonical URL. The disadvantage of the rel=canonical method is that it tends to waste the crawl budget on the given parameter pages and may be interpreted by the search engine crawlers as a hint, not a directive command.
Considering these URL parameters handling modalities and the pros and cons of each, you can find out which are the best possible modality in your website. Also, conduct a trial and error to identify its working for you and also do a URL parameter audit from time to time to see how this affects your SEO value fine-tune if needed.