July 22, 2021

What Are URL Parameters? A Guide for New Web Admins

If you are new to building websites, you probably do not think too much about URL parameters. Though you might pay attention to the structure and layout, modifying the strings of words and numbers on URLs are among the last on a newbie website owner's to-do list. 

However, these parameters are an essential part of your page—used correctly, they are sources of positive signals for your website rankings. Conversely, not paying attention to them can be detrimental to your SEO.

Getting to Know URL Parameters

URL parameters are elements that help you track and organize pages on your website. Also known as "query strings" or "URL query parameters," they add more information about a particular URL. You can identify a query string quickly—it is the part that comes after a question mark (?) on a URL. 

A URL query parameter consists of one or more pairs of variables and values. A variable, also known as a key, is an umbrella category or a classification relevant to the page in question. Meanwhile, a value is an item that falls under that key. You separate keys and values using an equal sign (=), and if there are multiple pairs, you separate them with ampersands (&). Take, for example, the following URL: https://www.sportshoes.com/?sort=lowest-price

This should theoretically take you to a page selling sports shoes. After the question mark, you see "sort=lowest-price," which means you want the page to display the most affordable options first.

How Do You Use URL Parameters?

Besides helping web administrators organize information on a page, URL parameters or query strings allow marketers to track where traffic comes from and what filters people often use. They can use this information to judge whether their last ad campaign or newsletter was a success.

Types of URL Parameters

According to Google, there are two general URL parameters—active or content-modifying parameters and passive, or tracking parameters. 

  • Active parameters will change the content a page displays. For example, the URL https://indoorplants.com?productid=bromeliad won't display all of the plants on the page "Indoor Plants." Instead, it will only display listings of bromeliads.
  • Meanwhile, passive parameters pass information about a click—it can show the network, campaign, or ad group a user is from without changing anything about the page. 

A tracking template records these URL parameters for the campaign manager. For example, someone who clicks on a link to Indoor Plants from an email newsletter will have the following URL: https://www.indoorplants.com/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email. Here are other uses of URL parameters.

Sorting and Filtering

Large e-commerce sites often use parameters to enable users to generate pages to help them find products they want to buy or sets of items they want to browse. Examples of this include:

  • /ya-books?sort=a-z
  • /mens-shoes?type=leather
  • /hotels/portland-or?rating=5-star

The first one alphabetizes young adult books, the second filters men's shoes and only displays leather ones, and the third filters hotel listings to display only those in Portland, Oregon, with a five-star rating. 

 Paginating

You can also use parameters to name multiple pages of search results or archives. For example:

  • /blog/archives?page=3

This query string refers to the third page of this website's archives.

Searching

Parameters can also help locate results on a website’s internal search engine, as in these examples:

  • /?search=christmas-lights
  • /?query=christmas-lights
  • /?s=christmas-lights
  • /?q=christmas-lights

All of these refer to searches on a website for articles, listings, images, or other elements tagged "Christmas lights."

Translating and Describing

You can also use parameters to access language options or identify a specific item, as in the examples below.

  • /services?lang=fr
  • /product?sku=5789

SEO Issues in Structuring URL Parameters

Most SEOs advise beginners to keep URL parameters to a minimum. Though they are helpful, URL parameters can slow down web crawlers, and poorly-written passive parameters can create endless URLs without providing much value. Here are some more issues SEOs face when structuring URL parameters.

1. They Can Create Duplicate Content

Search engines treat URLs as independent pages. So, multiple versions of a page—ones with slightly different URL parameters—might cause a search engine to flag your website for duplicate content. Google and other search engines often consider pages containing duplicate content as low-quality, which can adversely affect your rankings.

2. They Can "Waste" the Crawl Budget

Search engines love simple URL structures. If your URLs are complex and have many parameters, you might create multiple ones that point to similar or even identical content. According to Google, when this happens, a crawler might decide to mark all the content on your website as low-quality and simply move to the next.

3. They Could Weaken Readability

When you have multiple URLs referring to the same thing, any likes and social shares might go to parameterized versions of the page. When this happens, crawlers might not know which page should be ranking for which query.

Besides readability for crawlers, URL parameters also affect how users perceive your page's safety. Long strings of letters, numbers, and symbols make a URL look untrustworthy. Users are less likely to click and share a parameterized URL.

Using URL Parameters

Problems in optimization occur when URLs with parameters contain non-unique content. Passive parameters are an example of these—you can solve problems in duplication by refraining from indexing pages with this type of parameter. Here are other things that could help you prevent issues in structuring parameters.

Be Consistent with Internal Links

You need to signal to crawlers what pages they should and should not index. Always link to static pages without parameters. When you do this, you show crawlers which pages are authoritative. Make sure you also use the disallow tag to block crawlers from including parameterized content.

Canonicalize the Right Pages

After deciding which page represents the complete version of a text, you should canonicalize it or tag it as the "master copy." Reference the preferred URL on the different versions of the page using canonical tags.

For example, if you sell gloves on your website, you have to identify the main landing page containing all the types of gloves your store carries. For example, consider the following paths:

  • /footwear/womens-boots/
  • /footwear/womens-boots?type=winter
  • /footwear/womens-boots?color=tan

The first bullet contains what could be the canonical page for women's boots on this website. The following two, which contain parameters related to the general category of "women's boots," should contain a tag that tells crawlers they shouldn't be crawled and indexed.

Note that top or umbrella categories aren't the only ones you should canonicalize. In our example, "women's boots" is a subcategory under "footwear." However, the page for women's boots might have search value, so canonicalizing it—besides the page for footwear—might be helpful to the website.

Conclusion

URL parameters sort content on a page. Often, people see this on e-commerce pages; they sort content on a page and allow users to navigate online stores easily. Knowing how to use parameters properly will help you organize and track information on your site.

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