The Case for Short URLs


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What’s the last long URL you recall seeing? I’ve been asking myself why I have become so endeared to using short URLs lately. The more I think about it, the more I believe that deploying shorter URLs in website architectures, marketing and social sharing may serve us better than we think.

What’s the last short URL you can regurgitate from memory?

I’ll go first:

www.dell.com/tv

Funny, this URL was still rolling around in my brain from the “Dude you’re getting a Dell” TV commercial for the Dimension 4400 Desktop. It featured an Intel Pentium 4 processor to give you an indication of how long ago we’re talking about.

Other than just being easy to remember, I started thinking of other reasons why brevity in the browser address bar could be a good thing.

Browser Formatting

Starting with the obvious, consider the ability to view the entire URL in the browser address bar. With high resolution desktop displays, this is rarely a problem unless you have annoyingly long URLs. Users are likely going to feel more assurance from URLs that reinforce the page they are browsing. And what about mobile and tablets where space is limited? Shorter URLs would seem all the more important. A pretty good usability argument can be made here.

The Home Depot Mobile Site Truncated

Yikes! The iPhone 5 even truncates the Home Depot’s URL!

Location

A uniform resource “locator” points the user to a resource located on the web. Users may find themselves looking at the browser address bar to reaffirm where they are. A URL that quickly communicates where the user is in relation to other resources seems would seem likely to bring better results:

http://domain.com/widgets/red/

Instead of one like this:

http://thelongestlistofthelongeststuffatthelongestdomainnameatlonglast.com
wearejustdoingthistobestupidnowsincethiscangoonforeverandeverandever
butitstilllookskindaneatinthebrowsereventhoughitsabigwasteoftimeandenergy
andhasnorealpointbutwehadtodoitanyways.html

Click-through Rates

With URLs, the hare beats the tortoise. The famous Marketing Sherpa eye-tracking study on the impact of URL length in search results supports the idea that shorter URLs get higher click-through rates than longer URLs:

“By keeping the URL shorter, the focus remains on the title of your listing where you are likely to have more success with those searching for your product or service.”

Why would users be more inclined to click on shorter URLs? The study found that the length of the URL distracts viewers with the temptation to read instead of click. Yes, reading URLs takes time!

What other distractions might appear in search results? My observation is that Google attempts to provide a healthy degree of diversity in organic search results. When a lack of diversity is present in listings, a short brand keyword phrase in the URL could make the difference in click-throughs. Linda Bustos of GetElastic notes:

“Brands in URLs can have impact as well.  Presented with a page full of results for a term like ‘wireless optical mouse’ a searcher may just scan the left side of the page for URLs for domains of estores that he or she is familiar with and trusts.”

 

Social Shareability

Shorter URLs are more advantageous for compacting tweets. Real-time tracking, permanent redirects and of course just being cute make URL shorteners appealing in sharing social media. Google describes its URL shortener as:

“A perfect tool to help you understand what appeals to your audience and to help you optimize your social, email, and other click-through campaigns.”

If short URLs are better, we should all share with URL shorteners, right? There are many arguments against using URL shorteners (loss of control, link rot, trust, etc.). The biggest problem I have with URL shorteners is the inability to convey semantics. Yes, they’re shorter, but they don’t communicate with the user. I much prefer a short URL that tells me something like the www.dell.com/tv example.

SEO

Isn’t it funny that if you do a site operator on any site, the shortest URLs on a domain seem to appear first? Wonder why?

CNN with site operator

Short URLs work better for SEO. Long URLs make things worse. Oh yes they do! More than 5 words are weighted less and given less credit by Google saith Matt Cutts during as interviewed by Stephan Spencer:

“Next question: what is excessive in the length of a keyword-rich URL? We have seen clients use keyword URLs that have 10 to 15 words strung together with hyphens; or blogs – we have seen them even longer there. A typical WordPress blog will use the title of the post as the post slug, unless you defined something different and you can just go on and on and on. Can you give any guidelines or recommendations in that regard?”

 

Matt Cutts: “Certainly. If you can make your title four- or five-words long – and it is pretty natural. If you have got a three, four or five words in your URL, that can be perfectly normal. As it gets a little longer, then it starts to look a little worse. Now, our algorithms typically will just weight those words less and just not give you as much credit.”

Like so many things in SEO, more is not better anymore.

Less Spamnable

Along the same lines, short URLs offer the prospect of enhanced trust. Affiliate marketers go to great lengths to hide long parameterized URLs that call into question their intentions when linking out. I find myself pausing before clicking through links like this and when I see excessive keywords in a URL.

Another Cutts quote echoes this:

“I know that when I hit something like that – even a blog post – with 10 words, I raise my eyebrows a little bit and, maybe, read with a little more skepticism. So, if just a regular savvy user has that sort of reaction, then you can imagine how that might look to some competitors and others.”

Now that I’ve written and thought so deeply about the case for short URLs, I find myself hopelessly in favor of them. I suspect there are more arguments to be made. So, I’m wondering what other advantages do you think short URLs have over long URLs?

Written by Emory Rowland
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4 thoughts on “The Case for Short URLs

  1. Pingback: SearchCap: The Day In Search, January 14, 2013 : eMarketing Wall

  2. On the whole, 110% agree with you and fully support this more authentic, natural approach to URLs.

    I am going to play devil’s advocate though and make a (brief) case for long URLs. The only argument I could think of for the other side: Uniqueness. Thinking sites that publish tens or hundreds of pieces of content per day – think Search Engine Land or CNN or some such thing – no doubt especially those niche sites come across a lot of content with similar themes and sometimes you need to stretch those URLs out a bit to set them apart. Sure you could number them or something, but why do that when you could add a more useful descriptive keyword. (Cutts said “less” not “zero” weight.) I know it’s a bit of a stretchy argument, but it’s an argument. :)

  3. Emory Rowland on said:

    I like your argument Heather. I think it gets to the question of what the purpose of the URL should be, which I think, is more about location and yes, description of the content – the shortest description possible without compromising meaning. And if you’re publishing hundreds of posts per day, that still leaves room for a lifetime of 2 and 3 word short URLs :)

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