TLC for your URLs

Today I changed the URL structure of my website.

Oh, you didn’t notice? That sentence put you to sleep? “Change” is a bit drastic, “modified” is more accurate. But WordPress (and many other CMSs) makes it super easy to do this, and “pretty permalinks” or well-structured URLs can provide context, meaning, and flexibility in a way that default or garbled URLs cannot.

Keyword: Flexibility.

I drew inspiration to make this modification from an article on Co.Labs that described their experiment with “stub” stories:

Our system updates the story “slug” when the headline changes–check the URL of this story, and you’ll see words from the headline in the URL: /this-is-what-happens-when-publishers-invest-in-long-stories. But the number preceding the slug–on this article, it’s 3009577–is a unique node ID which never changes.

In my opinion and for my purposes (and for this fleeting moment in time), this structure of /%post_ID%/%postname%/ is appealing for three reasons:

  1. Including the post name in the permalink gives it meaning, gives it personality, gives it a human touch. Would you rather read http://zinser.me/?p=755, or http://zinser.me/755/tlc-for-your-urls/? or http://zinser.me/755/permalinks-rule-cats-drool/? What is /?p=755 going to be about?

  2. Including the unique post ID allows me to have a personalized sort-of-short URL. Yes I could use the built in wp.me shortlinks, but the result doesn’t say anything other than “I use WordPress”. Take these two URLs and how many characters are in each:

  • wp.me/p2Nvr9-c8 (15 characters)
  • zinser.me/752 (13 characters)

They both go to the same place, but the latter tells people “hey, I’m sending you to my own site so you can hear something interesting that I personally said” and it shaves two characters off your tweet. Score. (Granted this is only great if you can snag a relatively short domain to begin with.)

Getting back to the Co.Labs article, this structure allows me to distribute a URL while still fiddling with the title and the slug without breaking that original link.

When I sat down to write this I started down different paths (no pun intended) leaving fragments about lazy or indecipherable URLs; about useful and semantic URLs like at nytimes.com; or URLs with personality like jessicahische.is/heretohelp. But there are much smarter people than me to write a helpful 101 on the technology and strategies that power that little box above your bookmarks.

So I guess if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this post it would be this: Your site’s URLs are super important, and too often they feel overlooked. Please, take a moment — just one minute — to think about what those URLs are saying, and if they don’t say much, put them to work!