TLDR: Yes, it looks like it that having keywords in the URL does affect rankings for individual keyword phrases.
**This is the first in a series of posts where I take a look at test result pages and granular signals that affect Google rankings in 2016. I thought starting with the URL slug was a good place to move on from.**
In a recent video, John Meuller said that keywords in the URL was a ‘small ranking factor‘.
“I believe that is a very small ranking factor. So it is not something I’d really try to force. And it is not something I’d say it is even worth your effort to restructure your site just so you can get keywords in your URL.” SER
I’ve always proceeded as if the keyword in a URL was a relevance signal.
I looked into one of my long term tests.
It is sometimes hard to test Google in 2016 without creating low-quality pages that will probably be treated differently than high-quality pages, so I wanted my tests to be on high-quality pages that were trusted by Google.
I don’t like using made up words in my tests because Google can work differently in high-quality SERPs with lots of competition for a term, or conversely, on poorer quality SERPs.
At one time I ranked number 1 for the test focus keyphrase and with a good-quality exact match domain.
I have backlinks and a redirected, TRUSTED, CITED EXACT MATCH DOMAIN pointing to an INTERNAL page on a site where the focus keyword phrase I am interested in affecting is NOT on the page at all BUT is in the URL slug for the page. In effect, of course, that means that somewhere on the site in the underlying HTML there are pages that reference this page with that keyword in a URL slug. That might be pertinent.
The redirected domain itself is 10 years-old and has powerful links. The page itself is a high-quality page with thousands of words and is 100% on TOPIC for the redirect – although it does not have the exact phrase I am focused on, anywhere on the page.
**IMPORTANT TO NOTE – ANY reference of the focus keyphrase I am interested in, is wrapped in what I’ll call, for lack of a proper understanding of the marketing or technical speak, “the REDIRECT ZONE” e.g. the keyword phrase is not on the page, or in internal links to the page, or in backlinks to the page (at least, not in any backlinks that do NOT pass through the redirect zone which in this case is 301 redirects). IMPORTANT TO NOTE**
I was very careful to keep the signal of this focus keyphrase WITHIN the redirect zone, and once it was I isolated I could, I determined, see what impact on rankings could be observed.
The focus keyphrase is a WORD + A NUMBER as, at a granular level, Google must put a lot of weight on ‘numbers’ that provide information about specific entities and this must be a powerful switch at an important level e.g. World Cup 1966 and World Cup 1962 are TWO TOTALLY DIFFERENT SERPS because of one character in a number.
It is evident that numbers, in instances like this, are powerful switches and indicators.
So the focus keyword phrase is = “KEYWORD”+”NUMBER”
The LAST place the signal was present on the new site, outside of any redirect zone, was in the URL SLUG of the focus test page e.g. in keywords in the URL:
Once the keyword was removed about a year ago, the rankings slowly disintegrated into nothing (out of the top 100 at least), although came back for a brief period at the beginning of this year (albeit on page 90 or something). I have an idea why that might be, but no evidence to offer at the moment.
It would seem Google IS STILL INTERESTED in keywords in a URL SLUGS, as John Meuller indicates.
I proceed thinking keywords in the Url is a RANKING SIGNAL – and a VERY POWERFUL SWITCH at a quantum level (for instance, in my case study above) espeically for longer tail searches.
A keyword in a URL on its own is, hardly, understandably, from a relevance point of view, a ranking signal that is easy to determine is ranking value – e.g. on its own it’s unlikely to get you into the top ten of results, but it could be used to unlock relevance contained in the redirect zone, which could be very important to some people managing 301 redirects and so ‘redirect zones’.
AND OF COURSE – Ranking signals, emphasis on the plural, combine to create ‘relevance’ and ‘context’, as far as Google is concerned.
Under your website structure there is quite possibly a redirect zone e.g. controlled with a htaccess file, if like me, you are on an apache server.
Old URLs are redirected to new URLs, and old domains are redirected to new websites. In my recent tests I think I see evidence of Google being very careful about what relevance is passed through 301 redirects.
In FACT, if particular keywords are NOT on in any element on the page which is the final destination for Google to cache, it might be the case that Google will NOT pass A LOT (maybe none) of the contextual relevance signal along the redirect to the final page.
Does that mean when Google thinks there is no reason to justify passing signals along a chain or redirects, no signal is passed along? Could this help both to insulate against negative SEO attacks, Google bombing and redirecting penalties to others?Is it an attack on black hat redirects?
Is it an attack on black hat redirect management? (If you don’t understand that means by now, you probably don’t need to understand that).
Context and Structure matter, and need to meet and merge, to get the most out of any signals positing at your site. Links, and so redirects (e.g. ‘structure’), must match context (and the signals on new cached pages).
As John M says, I wouldn’t rip apart a perfectly good site just to have search engine friendly URLs, but if you are building a new site, having search engine friendly URLs still provide some ranking bonus.
If you are redirecting ANYTHING, pay very close to the actual terms you are redirecting and ensure they are present on the new page, and not trapped in the redirect zone.
PS – You can recover keyword rankings from the redirect zone and where it gets interesting is when you start to put the signals back….one by one, to see the effects of individual ranking signals.
Hope it makes sense.
ADVICE WARNING – This is part of a series of SEO ranking tests that look at traditional ranking signals and their effects on SERP positions. I would certainly NOT go and implement sitewide changes to your site based on this post. WAIT for the series to END so you can make a more informed decision based on more observations, but **things get a bit weird later in the series of tests!** – WARNING