URL parameters create duplicate content, waste crawl budget, and dilute ranking signals. Learn six ways to avoid potential SEO issues with URL parameters.
While parameters are loved by developers and analytics aficionados, they are often an SEO nightmare. Endless combinations of parameters can create thousands of URL variations out of the same content.
The problem is we can’t simply wish parameters away. They play an important role in a website’s user experience. So we need to understand how to handle them in an SEO-friendly way.
Also known by the aliases of query strings or URL variables, parameters are the portion of a URL that follows a question mark. They are comprised of a key and a value pair, separated by an equal sign. Multiple parameters can be added to a single page by using an ampersand.
The most common use cases for parameters are:
- Tracking – For example ?utm_medium=social, ?sessionid=123 or ?affiliateid=abc
- Reordering – For example ?sort=lowest-price, ?order=highest-rated or ?so=newest
- Filtering – For example ?type=widget, colour=blue or ?price-range=20-50
- Identifying – For example ?product=small-blue-widget, categoryid=124 or itemid=24AU
- Paginating – For example, ?page=2, ?p=2 or viewItems=10-30
- Searching – For example, ?query=users-query, ?q=users-query or ?search=drop-down-option
- Translating – For example, ?lang=fr, ?language=de or
SEO Issues with URL Parameters
1. Parameters Create Duplicate Content
Often, URL parameters make no significant change to the content of a page. A re-ordered version of the page is often not so different from the original. A page URL with tracking tags or a session ID is identical to the original.
For example, the following URLs would all return collection of widgets.
- Static URL: https://www.example.com/widgets
- Tracking parameter: https://www.example.com/widgets?sessionID=32764
- Reordering parameter: https://www.example.com/widgets?sort=newest
- Identifying parameter: https://www.example.com?category=widgets
- Searching parameter: https://www.example.com/products?search=widget
That’s quite a few URLs for what is effectively the same content – now imagine this over every category on your site. It can really add up.
The challenge is that search engines treat every parameter based URL is a new page. So they see multiple variations of the same page. All serving duplicate content and all targeting the same keyword phrase or semantic topic.
While such duplication is unlikely to cause you to be completely filtered out of the search results, it does lead to keyword cannibalization and could downgrade Google’s view of your overall site quality as these additional URLs add no real value.
2. Parameters Waste Crawl Budget
Crawling redundant parameter pages drains crawl budget, reducing your site’s ability to index SEO relevant pages and increasing server load.
Google sums up this point perfectly.
“Overly complex URLs, especially those containing multiple parameters, can cause a problems for crawlers by creating unnecessarily high numbers of URLs that point to identical or similar content on your site. As a result, Googlebot may consume much more bandwidth than necessary, or may be unable to completely index all the content on your site.”
3. Parameters Split Page Ranking Signals
If you have multiple permutations of the same page content, links and social shares may be coming in on various versions.
This dilutes your ranking signals. When you confuse a crawler, it becomes unsure which of the competing pages to index for the search query.
4. Parameters Make URLs Less Clickable
Let’s face it. Parameter URLs are unsightly. They’re hard to read. They don’t seem as trustworthy. As such, they are less likely to be clicked.
This will impact page performance. Not only because CTR can influence rankings, but also because it’s less clickable on social media, in emails, when copy pasted into forums or anywhere else the full URL may be displayed.
While this may only have a fractional impact on a single page’s amplification, every tweet, like, share, email, link, and mention matters for the domain.
Poor URL readability could contribute to a decrease in brand engagement.
Assess the Extent of Your Parameter Problem
It’s important to know every parameter used on your website. But chances are your developers don’t keep an up to date list.
So how do you find all the parameter that needs handling? Or understand how search engines crawl and index such pages? Know the value they bring to users?
Follow these five steps:
- Run a crawler: With a tool like Screaming Frog you can search for “?” in the URL.
- Look in Google Search Console URL Parameters Tool: Google auto-adds the query strings it finds.
- Review your log files: See if Googlebot is crawling parameter-based URLs.
- Search with site: inurl: advanced operators: Know how Google is indexing the parameters you found by putting the key in a site:example.com inurl:key combination query.
- Look in Google Analytics All Pages report: Search for “?” to see how each of the parameters you found are used by users. Be sure to check that URL query parameters have not been excluded in the view setting.