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The URL explained

The humble URL. Humble, perhaps. But the URL just happens to be the very epitome of what the web is all about — being connected. Here I’ll explain the URL and how to get the most from them…

The humble URL. Humble, perhaps. But the URL just happens to be the very epitome of what the web is all about — being connected. Here I’ll explain the URL and how to get the most from them…

The technicalities of the URL (Uniform Resource Locator), or if you’re a purist, the URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) are, for the most part, technical. So if you are a purist, and a technical one at that, the following URL primer is probably not for you. But if you’re a blogger or new to web development, then read on.

Of all the different elements and objects that make up a web page, you could dispense with almost everything else with the exception of the links and your website would still work. That should give you some indication of the importance of the not-so-humble URL.

Why URLs are like a word-of-mouth recommendation

URLs are kind of like giving a reference, or a word-of-mouth recommendation. When you recommend someone (analogous to the link), you often use descriptive and positive words (analogous to the link text).

If you’re talking to someone about a friend of yours who happens to be a plumber, then you’ll more than likely use the word: “plumber” to describe them. However, the big problem with URL usage in web pages and blog articles is the utterly lazy use of the descriptive text (technically called the “anchor” text). A lot of people will just attach the link to a single word, conferring little or no real value, which is a wasted opportunity.

Back in May last year, I wrote an article, explaining the value of link text and how best to link to external files. The advice is perfectly transferable to this topic. See what I did just then? I used a selection of highly descriptive words as the link text, leaving you in little doubt as to what the linked article is about.

Because I care about the environment, I’m going to recycle some of those previously used pixels, for your edification.

Making the most of anchor text

If you’re a webmaster, or are in the throws of developing a new website, there’s every chance that you’re going to include all kinds web pages from all around the web, even linking to some of your own.

The anchor text you use will offer a guide to Google as to how best approach this store of knowledge. For instance, Google examines the surrounding text of a URL as well as its immediate anchor text (see illustration below).

an example of the text surrounding a URL

When you link to a web page or a blog article, you’re actively endorsing that article; you’re as good as saying you trust that web page or blog article as a valued source of information that’s relevant to your own web page.

So by looking to the anchor text and examining the surrounding text, Google will look to the referenced web page and index it accordingly (see illustrations below).

An example of weak anchor text

an example of weak anchor text
An example of strong anchor text

an example of strong anchor text

The URL inequality dilemma

Not all URLs are made equal. Some are less valuable than others. Think of those moments when you’re talking to someone about a business, a person, a service, movie, motor car, or even a type of food that you just don’t like. There are a variety of ways that you can express this dislike, which you could also use in your anchor text.

But why link to something you’re either not happy with, don’t like or seriously distrust? We can often do this to illustrate something as being bad, as a reference, so people can visit that web page and decide for themselves.

However, the search engines aren’t yet smart enough to determine from the anchor text alone what your thoughts or feelings are of that web page or blog article. Compounding this dilemma further would be (as highlighted previously) the lazy use of link text. So what’s the solution? To add a very unique attribute to the anchor tag itself:

<a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>this web page gives me the creeps</a>

By adding the “rel” attribute to the “a” tag with the value: “nofollow” in your HTML, you’re instructing the search engines that the destination of that link shouldn’t be given any additional weight or ranking.

A question of ranking

However, let me be clear: adding a “nofollow” isn’t just about untrusted URLs. There are other more mundane and more important reasons for using the “nofollow”.

Lot’s of large websites use this attribute to prevent their own ranking from being diminished as a result of all the links to different websites.

When considering a blog or website, imagine it as a large bucket filled with a finite amount of liquid, which we’ll call link juice. Here, link juice is what makes your blog or website rank the way it does on the search engines — the more link juice, the higher the ranking.

Every time you link to some other website or blog, you put a small but measurable hole in the side of your bucket, out of which some of your link juice drains away, into the website or blog you just linked to. Too many holes and you run the risk of leaking away most of your link juice.

For very large websites, they will often routinely add the “nofollow” to all their out-bound URLs, or at least to the vast majority, with forums being a good example of this practice.

It’s also common to use the “nofollow” on navigational links on blogs and websites, like I’ve done here. This helps prevent the search engines wasting time and effort chasing after common links to common web pages which you’d prefer didn’t contain any of the valuable link juice.

Enhancing the value of a URL

Like I said earlier, when you add anchor text to a link, it’s best to concentrate on a descriptive line of text that contains words relevant to the web page in question. This isn’t just about explaining to the visitor what exactly that page is about, but you’re also explaining this relevance to the search engines, too.

It’s best to imagine the search engines as really, really fussy readers. Do that and you can’t go far wrong — and there’s another example of relevant anchor text.

If you’re a blogger like me, it’s sometimes necessary to link to previous articles. When you do this, the same rules apply here as they do when you’re linking to some other blog or website; you’re endorsing that source of information. However, this is your own content, so you’re actively building an interwoven mesh of relevant articles, which the search engines will paw over, adding differing values and weightings to. The more you link to a particular article, the more value is conferred, which is exactly the same as what happens with external links.

Think of this as you being self-promotional; you’re recommending relevant articles to your reader. You’ll have noticed that at the bottom of almost every article on the Blah, Blah! Technology blog there’s a list of recommended articles. It’s sort of the same thing, but in-line links (links within the body of the article itself) are the most valuable because:

  1. they’re within the context of the article;
  2. they’re surrounded by text which is also taken into account, and;
  3. the better and more descriptive the anchor text, the more value the URL confers.


So you thought URLs were simple, eh? Not so. And it stands to reason, when you think about it; the whole web absolutely relies on the URL to make everything work the way it does.

So the next time you add a link to a blog article or a web page, spare a thought for this article and remember that the URL is probably the most important thing you’re going to add…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

2 replies on “The URL explained”

Great article.

I understand you know your way around WordPress, so I hope you are OK with me shooting a few questions at you…

I just had a look at the WordPress codex and if I read it right, all outgoing links since WP version 1.5 are automatically tagged with rel nofollow.

And I found a plug-in to change that on a case by case basis.

I tried to find out whether this automatic no-follow applies to the blogroll. Do you know whether it does?

And if rel nofollow does apply to the blogroll, is it even possible to override it?

And what happens if I use rel nofollow in a link in inline text if the overriding code is nofollow anyway? Does the redundancy cause a conflict?

Very nice article Wayne. Granted, a bit oriented toward a beginner audience, but an entertaining read nonetheless and and excellent resource for anyone encountering these acronyms for the first time.

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