URLs – Human-Friendly Or Robot-Friendly?

Or Not

Many websites will find at least half of their traffic comes because someone has done a Google search. Sometimes it’s even higher than that. So if there is a conflict between what human beings prefer and what search engine robots prefer, which should you favour? This puzzle was graphically illustrated by two blog posts that appeared in the last 48 hours.

Today on the side of the humans, we had perhaps naturally Seth Godin. He was discussing URL Hygiene. He believes URLs are for humans. He particularly likes the advice that is given on Aaron Goldman‘s goodURLbadURL website. Here are some key points:

URL Best Practices

3. Whenever possible, use YourBrandName.com.

7. Use subdomains when driving people deeper than your homepage – e.g. Product.YourBrandName.com.

1. Don’t include www. We know to go to the World Wide Web to find you.

The previous day, Matt Cutts of Google had blogged about Subdomains and Subdirectories. In a sense he is speaking for the robots, because Google wants to make sure the robots will see what humans see. His advice yesterday would encourage web designers to use Subdirectories rather than Subdomains. That now goes quite counter to the 7th Do above.

On the much bigger question of whether to WWW or not to WWW, Google does not take a position. The only point they would recommend highly is to be consistent in using one or the other. Using Google Webmaster Tools in fact, you can specify whether you prefer them to index www.mydomain.com or mydomain.com.

The reason why this is important is that if both exist in the Google index, then each will be less visible than if only one of them was indexed. That visibility is created by other websites that have links to the website in question. A summary measure of this is the so-called PageRank. This is a fundamental factor in Google’s algorithm, which ranks Web pages in keyword searches. If both versions (the WWW version and the non-WWW versions) are used indiscriminately, then some links will point to one and other links will point to the other. Standardizing on one ensures the maximum PageRank and thus the maximum visibility in keyword searches for the website.

Which is better, the WWW version or the non-WWW version? If you follow Seth Godin and Aaron Goldman, you’ll go with the human-friendly URL and use the non-WWW version. If you’re trying to be friendly to the robots, that’s a tougher question. It all depends on those webmasters out there who may provide links to your website. The WWW version is much the more popular way of handling URLs so many of those links will point to that version. If you want to make sure that more of them get it right, then you’ll join the WWW camp.

11 thoughts on “URLs – Human-Friendly Or Robot-Friendly?”

  1. Hi Barry,

    I prefer no www. the www is a waste of one’s breath in my opinion and I don’t think there is an advantage of the www as long as you are canonically correct. 🙂 Thanks for the good read.

  2. Hmm, subdomains for products are human friendly? While at the same time wanting to remove the http://www.? Don’t agree there to be honest.

    I don’t know about other people, but I don’t tend to guess that sites have subdomains to goto areas of a site. I don’t type in books.amazon.co.uk, I type in http://www.amazon.co.uk and click the link. And I’m quite happy doing that.

    In order to go typing subdomains, you need to kow that they are using them, and know what they are….

    Considering the number of people who type full url’s into search engines, I hardly think there’s a universal understanding of subdomains.

    And for the same reasons I’m quite happy with www.
    Sure it’s a bit redundant, but I think it gives people a visual clue, and is something a lot of people expect.

    Even here in the office, someone will ask where a site is, and they will start of going “OK, so http://www., then?”, and we probably say “No, no www.”, because it’s setup on a subdomain for building. And that’s people involved in the web world.

    On printed stuff, it’s often quite easy to find the web address of the company by looking for the tell tale www. and going from there.

    Overall though, I really don’t think using www. or not is that big an issue, and tend to go along with Google, just be consistant.
    Even if you decide to drop the http://www., you’d be mad not to have a redirect from www. anyway, to catch all those people who expect it.

  3. Which is better, the WWW version or the non-WWW version? If you follow Seth Godin and Aaron Goldman, you’ll go with the human-friendly URL and use the non-WWW version.

    But is it? Does it honestly make a difference, as long as both sites point to the same location and the redirects have been correctly written? From a human perspective, one choice or the other is never the best choice: having both options function is easily the better choice, simply because it allows for both possibilities.

    Not saying “www” is definitely the more user-friendly means of speaking, since it’s a pain in the arse to say. But from a practical perspective, I’m firmly of the opinion that it’s entirely irrelevant to the user whether they’re on a www subdomain or not.

  4. I type “google.com” into the browser, and the website itself redirects me to the www version. So, make sure that one version serves content and the other is a redirect.

    There is no problem with promoting both versions, just as long as one of them serves content and the other is a redirect.

    Shame on the amazon.co.uk example, above. Both versions work, and neither of them redirects. They have a massive Duplicate Content issue on their site:



    There’s some http vs. https issues lurking too.

  5. If you care about traffic from search engines, then you should stay far away from the “human URL” argument. Seth may be a marketing guru, but he gets it very wrong when it comes to SEO. This is illustrated easily in the fact that he endorses this: “7. Use subdomains when driving people deeper than your homepage – e.g. Product.YourBrandName.com.”

    As Matt Cutts confirmed to me, subdomains are still considered unique entities to Google, which means if you followed a strategy of spreading out your content over many subdomains, you would greatly dilute your top level domain (TLD). So, instead of having one high authority TLD with tons of great content, you will have a diluted TLD with diluted subdomains. That is not a good strategy.

    If you’re concerned about humans, then use a short URL redirect system. Because the only humans we’re talking about that need human-friendly URLs are the ones typing them in manually from a print publication. Because on the Internet, links are links are links…and it doesn’t matter what they look like to a human.

  6. Skipping the “www” is human friendly? Sorry, but I don’t buy that. Sure, it’s easier to type, and it may be friendly for the tech-savvy crowd (who know it usually doesn’t matter), but usability is all about habit, and most non-savvy users are used to the “www”. Heck, a good chunk of people are still typing domain names into Google instead of the address bar on their browser. Let’s not confuse people any more than we have to.

  7. Doesn’t matter. Any webmaster who is conscious will make sure that both non-www and www resolve to the same place. As for SEO, I wouldn’t worry about that either – like you said you can specify which one is preferred in webmaster tools. So, what do you do, you 301 redirect the non-preferred to the preferred. Matt Cutts didn’t say that subdirectories are better then subdomains. He said that for him he preferred using a subdirectory. vs. a subdomain because it was easier.

    At the end of the day, for stuff like this, the search engine will need to do what is HUMAN FRIENDLY. It’s a usability thing for the most part, and, since it is the SE’s job to help us find stuff, chances are they are going to be able to recognize what is usable.

    Subdomains and subdirectories are technology decision first and a usability decision second… SEO decision, huh?

    Build a site that works well for your business, trying to strategize for stuff like this just makes it sound like you are trying to game the system…

  8. I tend to agree that the “www” is unnecessary, especially these days. It seems almost trendy to leave it off. I think this is a generational thing though. People who used the internet early on are used to the “www” and the younger generation is more used to seeing URL’s without it. The problem comes in deciding what works. What sounds better? Is this something you should determine yourself? Does that matter? No. Obviously you want concrete evidence. Tools like Glyphius take the guesswork out it. Instead you get concrete results on what URL’s are going to generate traffic and which ones aren’t. It’s very simple to use and guaranteed. Plus, like I said, Glyphius takes the guesswork out of it. Just my two-cents. Check it out: http://www.glyphius.com/

    – Del Grady

  9. anybody here know of a good site to find more info on what are sub domains? I’ve got this site bookmarked and im gonna keep checking it out, but i still would like to find a site that covers what are sub domains a little more thoroughly..thanks

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