In Google Webmaster Tools, you can do something called set URL parameters. By setting URL parameters, you tell Google what URLs you want in the index and which URLs you want out. The main purpose of this feature is to eliminate duplicate content, which is a big no-no in SEO. In addition, Google states you can get a more efficient crawl.
According to Google, “URL Parameters helps you control which URLs on your site should be crawled by Googlebot, depending on the parameters that appear in these URLs. This functionality provides a simple way to prevent crawling duplicate content on your site.”
There are really four main directives with URL parameters in Webmaster Tools and the configuration of those directives works as follows.
“You start by telling us whether or not the parameter changes the content of the page. If the parameter doesn’t affect the page’s content then your work is done; Googlebot will choose URLs with a representative value of this parameter and will crawl the URLs with this value. Since the parameter doesn’t change the content, any value chosen is equally good. However, if the parameter does change the content of a page, you can now assign one of four possible ways for Google to crawl URLs with this parameter:
- Let Googlebot decide
- Every URL
- Only crawl URLs with value=x
- No URLs”
So as you can see URL parameters act as settings that direct Googlebot to crawl certain URLs and leave others alone. They also help Google when there is duplicate content.
OK, now that we have the basics out of the way. Let me tell you some reasons why I really don’t like URL parameters.
Clean URLs are the best option
A good, sophisticated website should have a correct URL structure, not use URL parameters. The best option for Google SEO and just general online best practices is to have clean URLs. This plays into your SEO, your social media, your email marketing, your usability, etc. You should never have a URL structure that is so fragmented that you need to use this feature. It is just bad online mojo. My opinion.
Rel Canonical, 301 Redirects Are a Better Option
If your CMS does for some reason create extra URLs that you cannot get rid of, first nicely ask your developer why have you done such a thing? If they convince you that it is impossible to clean them up (know this this is not true, anything can be done online) the next best option is to 301 redirect them to the correct area. If this doesn’t work, do a rel canonical. 301 redirect and rel canonical do a better job getting the correct URL in the index and user to the right page. In addition, overtime Google will crawl these URLs less frequently just like they would with URL parameters. In all honestly, robots.txt and URL parameters are about the same as far as their value in solving an issue like this. So try to stay away from both if you can.
You could make a big mistake
One of the biggest issues I see with URL parameters is that a large website will use them and they really wont know what they are doing. This results in hundreds or thousands of pages getting kicked out of the index and they don’t even know. Parameters are dangerous in that the include everything setting can catch URLs that the website might not have meant to block. In addition, you can have multiple URL parameter settings for a single URL. Google will ignore the less restrictive setting.
Summing up URL parameters
I have seen 50 or more websites use URL parameters at this point. I every single case the implementation they had was really a patchwork. There is always a better way. In each case, I went into the website, remove the parameters and implemented a correct URL structure by either eliminating the bad URLs, doing redirects or implementing rel canonical. I actually love running into these websites because once these issues are corrected traffic always increases. In one case, I had a website that didn’t realize they had blocked all the URLs with their biggest keyword in them. That webmaster was shortly after let go, as he had cost the company a lot of money in ecommerce revenue.
I know some people probably really like URL parameters in Webmaster Tools. To each his own of course. But I would say this. The only reason you should be using them is if there is absolutely no other way and in the online world, there always is…