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It doesn’t take much to send a story viral on Twitter, but a recent quirk in the URL system at The Independent saw a flurry of humorous web links scattered across the Twittersphere. 

I was first alerted to the incident when one of our leading techies at dotCommerce, Stuart Gill, sent me a link that was doing the rounds on Twitter, seemingly exposing an entertaining URL on a story about Kate Middleton’s head in The Independent.

Namely:

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/utter-PR-fiction-but-people-love-this-shit-so-lets-just-print-it-2269573.html 

While it initially looks as though a sub-editor at the paper has been neglectful, this is actually an example of a little URL rewriting feature that is common to lots of content management systems.

As long as you have the numbers at the end, you can put anything into the URL and it will still work normally.

For example:

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/why-we-are-cancelling-our-Guardian-subscription-2269573.html

or

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/dotdigital-group-wins-national-business-awards-and-all-the-oscars-2269573.html 

Not just for the URL of it

Laughs aside, URL rewriting is something that we, and many other websites, use quite frequently. Why is this? At the basic marketing level, it allows us to generate memorable URLs for campaigns or print marketing.

But, with database-powered ecommerce sites, things get more interesting and the trick becomes a lot more useful.

Addresses UnfURLed 

Take Go Native for example, a website offering serviced apartments we developed. Pages on the site are constructed automatically based on the contents of a central database. However, this means you end up with URLs classics like this:  

http://www.gonative.com/property_searching/property_information_page.aspx?propertyId=10494 

This is actually an information page for the Forbes Building in Aberdeen (their ID is 10494).

But it’s a really ugly URL, so we do some magic using rewrites to change it to the much prettier address:  

http://www.gonative.com/apartment/the-forbes-building/10494/.  

Note you can put any text in the URL you want, and it still works:  

http://www.gonative.com/apartment/land-of-the-gods-with-a-double-en-suite/10494/ 

Behind the Scenes

So what’s going on here? 

The logic is built into the URL format so that, no matter what is in the text field, it’s the number ID that is searched for.

So when the machine sees http://www.gonative.com/apartment/$text$/$number$/, it takes a look at the last bit of the URL and returns the following:  

http://www.gonative.com/property_searching/property_information_page.aspx?propertyId=$number$

Naturally, the same works in reverse to ensure that the more complex URL is shown in simple, user-friendly terms.

What are the advantages? 

1.   It looks professional and it’s reassuring to users to see that the URL contains the name of whatever they were searching for.

2.   Google does catalogue these pages if they become popular (as the Independent found) so there’s SEO value here. If the name of the search is in the URL, this may help your rankings. It also means you can keep the URLs even if you change your CMS – so you don’t throw away all your SEO juice. 

3.   It can, in some circumstances, help to secure your site. If URLs become less easy to guess by potential hackers

At the end of the day we’ve all had our fun, but let’s not forget the valuable role this function serves for marketers every single day. 

Oh go on then, one more: 

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/INSERT-SOMETHING-FUNNY-HERE -2269573.html

Tink Taylor

Published 20 April, 2011 by Tink Taylor

Tink Taylor is Managing Director of dotmailer and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

9 more posts from this author

Comments (11)

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Dominic Litten

Can the author expand upon the SEO benefits, because from where I sit, this ends up being a duplicate content nightmare.

I've been wrong before, but wouldn't best practices specify a canonical page and be done with it? I get the user and analytical benefits, but how does a bunch of pages with the same content help me?

The Gawker blogs utilized this URL tactic with their last CMS/design change and have been playing SEO catch-up ever since. Months later, they are still trying to figure it out.

about 5 years ago

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mobius

Nice and depth posting. I just curious, is this strategy safe for panda update?

'Coz in my humble experiences if I put truck load those kind of url to social media, it will flag google radar :P

Could you give advice on this strategy more detail?

about 5 years ago

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Jenni

Seconding the duplicate content issue. As far as your 'advantages' are concerned:

1. Pretty much all CMSs have SEO friendly URL options which should be utilised. And the page benefits from having an URL with text that occurs in the page title and on the page. There is less chance of this happening with rewriteable URLs.

2. Duplicate content, and lack of control as competitors can abuse it.

3. I'd hope people have better security in place than that.

about 5 years ago

Andy Headington

Andy Headington, CEO at Adido LimitedSmall Business

Good points in the comments about the SEO effects of the URL rewrites. We've seen this ourselves that you can end up in a 301 hell if your URLs get abused.

Think the best thing to do is to use rel=canononical tag to get around the possible abuse of URLs...

about 5 years ago

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smoMashup

I thought I was reading a joke there for a bit, til I realized you were serious. I do not see how this is a benefit for user experience or SEO at all.

As others have stated, this is a potential duplicate content nightmare for SEO. While there are other things you can do behind the scenes to perhaps combat that, if the system was properly designed, you shouldn't have to.

Also, how exactly are unlimited made up URL's all linking to one story beneficial to an end user? If I can look at 30 URL's in Twitter or email or whatever and I'm unable to tell if I've already read that story or even if it's a story I would want to read (due to a phony URL), I would hardly call that handy or helping my user experience.

about 5 years ago

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Simon

I'm amazed that anyone could think this is a well implemented feature. ie The ability for *any internet user* to make up a url to your site and have your CMS accept it and seamlessly publish content ?

It's wrong in two ways.

1. A competitor could promote an embarressing url example.com/why_we_suck_3234.htm or similar.

2. The embedded number detracts from the user friendliness of the link. Links should be mysite.com/my-friendly-link, not mysite.com/my-friendly-4453245-link.htm

I would suggest checking out how Drupal (as an example) handles "url aliasing". Vastly superior to this ...

about 5 years ago

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Norbert

This concept become popular around 5 years ago, but many people abused it creating embarrassing URLs as Simon mentioned in previous comment. This is really wrong way how to create nice URLs and it shouldn't be used. I'm surprised I can read about it on this blog as an advice.

about 5 years ago

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Simon

2. There is SEO value here
Only if you use either a 301 redirect or the canonical meta tag. The Independent have simply have a serious design flaw in their CMS.

Putting a number in the url must surely dilute the SEO value of the other keywords in the url.

I wouldn't be surprised if all else being equal, mysite.com/searched-for-keywords out ranks yoursite.com/searched-for-keywords-4545323.htm

3. It can, in some circumstances, help to secure your site. If URLs become less easy to guess by potential hackers

Sorry, but this in no way helps to secure your site.

Savvy webmasters are all about making it *easier* for users to guess urls not more difficult.

about 5 years ago

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Amelia

This isn't SEO-friendly.

But then again, I don't think it would have any effect on whether a site was indexed or not.

The duplicate content issue could be overcome with a canonical meta tag.

I'd be wary of saying that this method opens a site up to abuse from competitors. I reckon the scenario mentioned in the blog comments would never happen... Just my personal opinion.

about 5 years ago

Gerry White

Gerry White, Techical SEO Director at SiteVisibility

I have seen it where the URL gets read into the page, typically on a spammy site where they find and replace a company and just instert it in to get money descriptive pages about one topic for many companies etc.. - always fun to play insert the KW there ...

about 5 years ago

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Joe

I remember when I used to work at BBC News Online many years ago, their URLs were still re-writable. When I pointed this out to them, they quickly changed things (I don't know exactly what CMS they were using). Obviously they perceived the reputational risk to outweigh any perceived benefits.

What company would wish to allow users to tinker with a serious piece of brand real-estate in this way?

about 5 years ago

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