Every so often, we get inquiries on one or another SEO forum from site owners or SEOs asking if it's worth it to rename their files or register a new domain in order to “get more keywords” in their URLs.
Is there SEO value in having keyword phrases in your URLs? And does it offer enough value to make it worthwhile to move existing pages to a new address?
I don't know of anybody who can answer those questions outside of search engine employees, and they aren't talking. There's a debate in the SEO world. Some think “keyword-rich” domains and file names count in your favor. Others think they could, if taken to excess, count against you, because they're a clear indication to the search engines that you're actively trying to optimize your pages. Still others believe they have little to no effect either way.
Under certain specific conditions, there do appear to be minor SEO benefits to having keywords in your URLs. (Mainly when somebody links to your page using the actual page URL as the anchor text of the link.) But are these benefits enough to make it worthwhile to change, if you already have a well-indexed website?
Well, it depends. Let's compare to a real-life scenario.
My father-in-law lives alone, about 500 miles away from us. He loves spending time with us (particularly my son, his only grandson), so periodically he talks about the idea of moving to our area.
In some ways, my father-in-law packing up and moving 500 miles away from his current home simply in order to be closer to us is similar to a website owner “packing up and moving” to a new domain or a whole new set of file names simply in order to try to get more keywords into their URLs.
In other words, it's not necessarily a terrible idea, but it does have consequences. It's not something one wants to enter into lightly. For instance:
If my father-in-law moves from New Jersey to North Carolina, he'll leave behind all of his friends. He'll have to start all over from scratch here, building up trust with a whole new set of peers.
If you change all your URLs, you have in essence created a whole new website. You'll have to start over from scratch, rebuilding trust with search engines and other sites.
If my father-in-law moves, he'll have to file a change of address form with the Post Office in order to have mail sent to his old home forwarded to his new address. Does a mail forwarding form ensure that every last piece of mail sent to my father-in-law's old address will make it to his new house? Hey, the Post Office doesn't always deliver all his mail now. Adding the extra step of forwarding isn't going to make the process any more reliable. So he'll have to spend time updating his address everywhere. Some people and organizations may never make the change.
You can use redirects to point links targeting your old pages to your new page URLs. Do these redirected links pass along exactly the same value as if they pointed directly to the new page address? Probably yes, but nobody can say for sure. I'm not sure if I'd want to bet the bank on it. You'll have to spend time trying to get other webmasters to update their links. Some may never make the change.
If my father-in-law moves, it will take some time (perhaps a long time) before he feels as comfortable in his new neighborhood and house as he does in his current home.
If you change all your URLs, plan on losing rankings (and traffic and possibly sales) for a period of months (perhaps many months) while the search engines re-evaluate and “get comfortable” with your new site. Remember, in their eyes, you've launched a whole new site. Some people claim to be able to shortcut the process through one means or another. I don't doubt that some have managed to do it under certain circumstances. Would I want to rely on the idea that I'll be able to pull off a similar feat? Not on your life.
If my father-in-law moves, the possibility exists that he may never feel as comfortable in his new neighborhood and house as he does where he is now.
If you change your URLs, the possibility exists that your rankings may never rebound to the levels they were before you made the change. (Of course, the possibilty exists that they may come back even better. So, do you feel lucky?)
If my father-in-law moves, and later decides the move was a mistake, it's going to be just as much of a hassle all over again to move back. He may not be able to get his old house back (unless he held on to it as an investment property when he moved). He may find his old neighborhood changed, old friends moved on, old relationships no longer viable.
If you change your URLs and later decide the change isn't working out the way you envisioned, you'll face many of the same issues with moving back that you faced in the initial move. It isn't that you can't go home again, but it's not necessarily going to be easy.
Is it worth it to move? Only you can answer that. (For the record: for me, it's not.)
Of course, sometimes you can't help it. You or your spouse get a new job or a job transfer. Your company name changes and you have to register a new domain.
So before you move, make sure you've taken into consideration all the potential consequences. If after careful consideration you still feel it's a good idea to move — or if you don't have a choice in the matter — plan carefully, as carefully as you would if you were moving to a new house on the other side of the country. Maybe even more carefully.
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