02 November, 2007

Should You Keep URLs Consistent?

This entry was originally posted on the omnistaretools.com blog. It is reposted here for reference only.

Today’s article is going to be a little controversial, but in a past article I said that was okay, so I’m not worried. The reason today’s article is controversial is because I’m going to talk about URLs. And despite its innocuous name, the differing uses of URLs tend to create huge disagreements in quite knowledgeable people.

URLs are the web addresses you usually see at the top of your browser–it’s basically the pathname of a given internet document. (This article’s url, for example, might be blog.omnistaretools.com/,omnistaretools.com/blog/, or even omnistaretools.com/blog/ 2007/11/02/should-you-keep-urls-consistent/, since this content is served in multiple locations.) The idea behind URLs is that you can use them to reach specific content at any time. As such, the majority of web developers are in near unanimous agreement that once you put up content at a URL, it should stay at that URL.
But there a significant number of web designers who disagree. For reasons of simplicity, an increase in brand recognition, and overall looks, sometimes a designer will make the conscious decision to create a site that has content over multiple pages yet will keep the same apparent URL in the address bar of the browser throughout the entire site.
At this moment, I can guarantee that any web developers out there are groaning at that last paragraph. Yet it is important to remember that web developers and web designers are two very different breeds, even if sometimes you will see developers who also design on the side, and, very occasionally, designers who develop on the side.

The difference between Designers and Developers

Web Designers are the people that determine the look and feel of a website. Their vision is largely artistic. Web Developers are the people that take that vision and create code to put into action. The difference here is subtle, but it is very important to understand.
From the developer’s point of view, the best way to do things is the way they are meant to be done. He is like the engineer who wants to make the bridge functional, maintaining that functionality is what makes it beautiful. See CSS Zen Garden, for example. But for the designer, there is an overarching plan that sometimes goes beyond simple functionality. Sometimes the artist wants to add parts to the bridge that will actually decrease functionality, but in a way that makes it closer to what the designer has in their mind.

The Designer’s Argument

Keeping It Simple & Clean
Simplicity is king in design. Take a design class, and one of the first lessons you will learn is to respect clean whitespace as an integral part of any project. Emptiness can often be more striking than actual content.
In that same vein, designers often do not like the idea that when they design a webpage, they can only affect content within the confines of a browser. Good designers will often use whatever tricks they can come up with in order to break this restriction of being inside the box. This includes using menubar=no, scrollbars=no, and the like for popups, which I may go into in a future article. But it also includes making the address bar look clean, by enforcing it to refer to the homepage only, regardless of what page you are actually on.
How to Do It
Accomplishing this is actually not that difficult. You can mask an entire site to look as though it is from a different domain using functionality that is present in most domain name services, or you can do it manually yourself. Either way, the method is the same. (Omnistar Domains, for example, can do this for you automatically if you choose the ‘mask’ option.) Just create a single frame on your index page that links to your actual content. What follows below is a simplistic example.

Your Page Title

Of course, the above example code is not good for SEO. To optimize your site for search engines, you must also put up noframes content that mirrors your important content. Although most readers will not view the noframes content (some will, of course, so make absolutely sure you include it for accessibility reasons), search engines will spider this content and tag it as being what you have on your index page. You MUST do this, if you want to take full advantage of the SEO benefits.
What benefits are those, you may ask? Well, since all of your pages have the same web address posted, you can spend all of your time increasing the pagerank for your index page, as opposed to spreading out the links to each of your individual pages. In terms of total ranking, you may lose out, but by putting all your rankings into this one page, you can almost guarantee that this one page will rank higher than it otherwise would have ranked.
This one is easy to see: by keeping your main page url in the address bar, along with everywhere else on your site, you are enforcing the capacity to remember your site name over time.
Bringing Multiple Source Content Together
Sometimes, if you’re building a test site with a limited budget, it pays to start a website out by bringing together content from another page. By using the single frame but without putting in identical content in the noframes page, you can effectively start to age a site even before you’ve gotten around to starting it. For example, my personal site is still a work in progress, yet instead of putting my domain name in stasis, I mask it over to my blog. This is useful for SEO, as the age of a site is taken into account when determining ranking. Please note that I do not use noframes to mirror content, as having the same content over multiple pages can actually hurt SEO. Only mirror content if the mirrored location is NOT indexed.
Another interesting use for this masking is to hide ugly cgi addresses. In this case, you really are not losing all that much, since generally cgi generated pages are not as permanent as they could be; especially if you end up using id=’w/e’ or similar function calls. In these cases, you don’t even get good SEO capability with the pages, since search engines tend to extremely disvalue any page whose address uses id=’w/e’ or the like.
Furthermore, such addresses are generally extremely ugly and impossible to remember manually, so there is even further justification for masking the address. Yet even as I say these words, I am confidant that the developers out there are protesting to their utmost, so I’ll move on to their point of view.

The Developer’s Argument

While it is true that by making all links to your site point to the same page, you are increasing the links to that one page, it is also true that you will get much fewer spontaneous links to content on your site. If you have a good page on widgets, for example, and users find out that if they try to link to it, they instead are putting a link to your main page, which is not the widgets page that they wanted, then they may decide not to link to you at all. This can be a problem, though it is of course minimized if your site is small, and if your best content is on your main page, as opposed to making your main page a portal to your content.
Again, the issue is that content is not where users expect it to be. When a user bookmarls your site, they expect to be able to go back to what they were looking at by going back to that bookmark. But if the address they bookmarked is in fact a different page, then they may lose interest in your site later on when they return to the bookmark and are confused about where it has taken them.
One of the strangest effects is that by deciding to go this way with your site, you will effectively upset any web developers who happen to visit your site. They will not consider that you made this decision on purpose, but will instead just think that you do not know what you are doing with web development. This means that for a very small subset of the population, your site will look unprofessional. If you are marketing to a technical audience, then this is a major issue. But if your audience is for people in general, or some other nontechnical group, then I wouldn’t worry about this at all, since from a design standpoint, masking is much cleaner, and so looks more professional to nontechnical people.

In conclusion…

I don’t expect to win over too many developer-oriented adherents, but then that wasn’t the point of this article. As the webmaster of your own site, it really is your site, and you can make the design decisions for your site on your own. Just make sure to take note of all the pros and cons of utilizing this masking method.
Posted by Eric Herboso.
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