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Should I provide meaningful URLs? Absolutely, if your information architecture and its technical implementation allow the use of keyword rich hyphened URLs. But bear in mind that URLs are 'unchangeable', thus first consider to develop a suitable information architecture and a flexible Web site structure. You'll learn that folders and URLs are the last thing to think of.

"What is the best directory structure?", "Should I use keywords and hyphens in file names?", "Is .html better than .php?" and "Should I stick with trailing slashes or not?" are only a few of the most popular questions in BBS threads on search engine friendly Web site architectures.

Why are those good questions totally and utterly inopportune in the first place? Because it makes no sense to paint a house before the architect has finished the blueprints. Yes, Web sites do need a suitable and future-safe architecture, to be exact they need an information architecture and a underlying technical architecture.

A well thought out information architecture requires a very flexible technical infrastructure. I won't think about directory structures, trailing slashes and details like that in the first place, because the physical structure is (or at least should be) totally independent from the logical structure. Also, the logical structure is subject of many changes during the life cycle of a site or network, whilst for tons of good reasons the physical structure must not be changed, especially URLs should never change.

Before I talk to code monkeys or evaluate CMSs, I should have a detailed model of a suitable information architecture, and a pretty good idea of future growth in different scenarios. While designing the IA, I must not look at technical issues like tactical SEO. Geeky thinking in this project phase is counterproductive, because it leads to unnecessary restrictions and limitations, which as a rule will result in expensive change requests or even failed projects.

It's nice to have meaningful file names in a hierarchical directory structure, but file names and directory structures aren't needed at all to create a user friendly Web site. That does not mean one shouldn't try to provide meaningful URLs. It means that the underlying physical structure must not dictate the form of content presentation and navigation, or even influence the IA in other ways. Stiff hierarchies do not allow natural growth and do not support ever changing business processes, because they are unscalable and lack flexibility.

It makes sense to organize content topically, but every attempt to define a future safe global hierarchy beforehand will fail in the end, so why try it? The storage management and physical structuring of a Web site or network of sites should function like a file system, where we start with an empty disk, allocate space when needed, and organize files in a organic manner. For the IA it plays no role whether the content is ordered by type, topic, size or date of creation, whether the content is stored in files on disks of different servers, or databases, or dynamically requested from 3rd party services. That's achieved with data access layers and dynamic content structures. By the way, a multi layer architecture is applicable for small and large sites, just the complexity differs depending on the project's size and goals.

Implementing the IA is done by assigning topically structured content to nodes and connecting nodes to related nodes, giving the(multiple) logical structure(s) and the user interface(s). URLs are persistent properties of nodes, while a node's location(s) in the structure is(are) transient, that is topical connections can be changed, removed and added if necessary, giving new or alternative logical views at the content, without the need to make structural changes. Hierarchical components of URLs do not necessarily represent the navigation. Technically they are totally meaningless, even UUIDs would do the job (if they were spider friendly or would remind a bookmarking user of the page's content). However, if it's achievable, the URL should give the user a pretty good idea about the page and its position in the logical structure.

Bottom line is, it's possible to provide meaningful and search engine friendly URLs which are not wedged in stiff directory structures. A Web site can be developed without a given global directory structure, it can grow over time and organize its content in ever changing dynamic structures (which can be represented by static-looking URLs too). This principle is valid for Web sites and networks of any size and any type. That does not mean it can be realized with every past-paradigm-toolset.

If you think the above said is dull as dirt, in my article Web Site Structuring, a section of Anatomy and Deployment of Links, I provide illustrated design patterns and examples, so it should be a livelier lecture.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

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