URL parameters, often appearing after a question mark in a URL, play a crucial role in tracking user behaviour and sorting content.

However, if not managed correctly, they can lead to significant SEO challenges, such as duplicate content issues, wasted crawl budgets and diluted link equity.

This guide is designed for SEO professionals, digital marketers and website managers who are looking to optimise their websites for better search engine visibility and user engagement.

Whether you are new to SEO or looking to refine your skills, this guide provides practical strategies and insights into URL parameter management.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

What are URL parameters?

When you browse the Internet and click on links, you might have noticed that URLs often end with a question mark followed by more text.

This extra text is what we call “URL parameters”, also known as “query strings”.

They are special tools used by websites to manage and organise the content you see.

Understanding URL parameters

A URL is like the address of a page on the Internet, and parameters are extra instructions that tell the website how to display the page for you.

These parameters appear after a question mark (?) and are separated by ampersands (&).

Here’s a breakdown of a hypthetical URL:

https://www.example.com/products?category=shoes&colour=black

  • Base URL: This is the main part of the address.
  • Question mark (?): This symbol marks the beginning of the URL parameters.
  • Parameters: These are the key-value pairs that follow, where a key and a value are linked by an equals sign (=). Each pair tells the website something specific about how you want to view the page.
  • Ampersands (&): These symbols separate multiple parameters.

Here’s a further breakdown of the URL:

https://www.example.com/products?category=shoes&colour=black

  • Base URL: https://www.example.com/products – This directs you to the products section of the website.
  • Parameter 1: category=shoes – This tells the website that you want to see products categorised under shoes.
  • Parameter 2: colour=black – This further filters the products to show only those that are black.

Why are URL parameters used?

URL parameters can be used for several reasons:

  • Tracking: They can track where visitors come from or how they navigate through a site. For example, a parameter might record that you clicked a link from an email.
  • Sorting or filtering content: Websites use parameters to sort or filter products or content – like showing all black shoes in a shoe category.
  • User sessions: Some websites use parameters to remember you and your preferences across multiple pages.

Common types of parameters

  • Session parameters: These might track your session ID, helping the site remember your activity during the visit.
  • Product filters: Common in e-commerce, these parameters filter items by features like size, colour, or type.
  • Source tracking: These parameters might indicate how you arrived at a site, like from a social media post or an advertisement.

How URL parameters affect SEO

Now that you understand what URL parameters are, it’s important to know how they can impact your website’s Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

Handling them correctly is crucial because they can either help or hinder how search engines index and rank your site.

Crawling and indexing

Search engines like Google send out ‘crawlers’ or ‘spiders’ to discover and index the content of your site.

When your URLs have parameters, these crawlers might end up visiting the same content through multiple different URLs due to the parameters.

This can waste valuable crawl budget on duplicate content rather than new, unique content.

If a crawler encounters multiple URLs leading to the same content, it can lead to confusion about which URL to index.

This might result in the wrong URL being displayed in search results or important content being missed altogether.

Check out How the Google Search Algorithm Works for more detailed information about web crawling and indexing.

The risk of duplicate content

Duplicate content occurs when the same or very similar content appears on multiple URLs.

This is a common issue with URL parameters, especially with parameters that do not significantly change the content of the page (like session IDs or tracking codes).

Search engines might penalise your site because they prefer unique content and might see duplicates as an attempt to manipulate rankings.

Link equity dilution

Link equity, or “link juice”, refers to the ranking power passed to a site via links from other websites.

If different URLs with parameters lead to the same content, the link equity can be spread across these URLs instead of being concentrated on a single, canonical URL.

This dilution can weaken your site’s potential to rank higher in search results.

Want to learn more about SEO? We’ve got you covered:

10 top SEO practices for managing URL parameters

Effectively managing URL parameters is essential for optimising your site’s SEO. Here are detailed practices you should implement:

1. Leverage SEO tools

Since Google Search Console removed the feature to manage URL parameters in 2022, you can turn to major SEO tools like Semrush and Ahrefs for similar functionality.

In Semrush, when setting up an SEO site audit, you can configure the tool to exclude parameterised URLs from crawling.

Similarly, Ahrefs offers a toggle in the crawl settings called “Remove URL Parameters” during a project setup in Site Audit, allowing you to ignore any URLs with parameters.

2. Use robots.txt wisely

Using robots.txt is an effective way to manage how search engines interact with your site, particularly when it comes to controlling the crawling of URLs with parameters.

Here’s how you can do it wisely:

  • Identify non-essential parameters: Start by identifying which URL parameters are non-essential for search engine indexing. These typically include parameters used for tracking clicks, session IDs and sorting options that do not substantially change the content of the page.
  • Create and update your robots.txt file: Once you’ve identified non-essential parameters, you can use the Disallow directive in your robots.txt file to prevent search engines from crawling these URLs. For example, if you want to block URLs that contain a session ID parameter, you might add a line like this: Disallow: /*?session_id=. This line tells crawlers to ignore any URLs that include session_id= as a parameter.
  • Test your robots.txt file: Use the robots.txt tester tool in Google Search Console to ensure your directives are set up correctly and that you’re not accidentally blocking important content from being crawled.

3. Implement canonical tags

Canonical tags are a cornerstone of SEO for managing duplicate content caused by URL parameters. Here’s how to implement them effectively:

Understand when to use canonical tags: Canonical tags should be used when different URLs lead to similar or identical content. This often happens with URL parameters used for tracking, sorting, or filtering that do not change the core content.

Select the canonical URL: Choose the URL that best represents the page and that you want search engines to index and present in search results. This URL will be the “canonical” URL. For instance, if:

https://www.example.com/product?color=red and
https://www.example.com/product?color=blue have the same content,

decide which URL is primary (, perharps, https://www.example.com/product).

Apply the canonical tag: Add the following tag, <link rel=”canonicalhref=”https://www.example.com/product”/>,to the <head> section of the HTML of each duplicate page. This tag tells search engines that the page specified in the href attribute is the one that should be indexed.

Cross-check across site versions: Make sure all versions of the page that have parameters point to the same canonical URL to strengthen the directive to the search engines.

Monitor and adjust as needed: Use analytics and search engine feedback to monitor how well your canonical tags are working. Adjust them if you see that search engines are not indexing the preferred URL.

4. Exclude unnecessary parameters from sitemaps

Properly managing your sitemap is crucial for ensuring that search engines spend their resources crawling and indexing the most important content of your website.

Here’s how to effectively exclude unnecessary URL parameters from your sitemaps:

  • Identify non-essential parameters: Start by determining which URL parameters are not essential for your site’s content organisation or user navigation. Common examples of non-essential parameters include those used for tracking user sessions, specific user identifiers, or redundant sorting and filtering options that do not alter the main content significantly.
  • Audit your current sitemap: Review your current sitemap to identify URLs that contain these non-essential parameters. SEO tools like Screaming Frog SEO Spider can help you automatically crawl your website and generate a list of all URLs, making it easier to spot those with parameters.
  • Modify your sitemap generation process: Adjust your website’s sitemap generation settings to automatically exclude URLs with certain parameters. If you are using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, plugins such as Yoast SEO or Google XML Sitemaps can be configured to exclude specific types of URLs or those containing certain query strings.
  • Use regular expressions for filtering: If your sitemap is generated programmatically or through a more complex system, consider using regular expressions to filter out URLs with parameters. This method allows for more granular control over which URLs are included based on patterns in the URL string.
  • Update your sitemap regularly: Make sure to regularly update your sitemap as you add new content and as the structure of your site changes. Periodically checking to ensure that no unnecessary parameters have been inadvertently included is key to maintaining an optimised sitemap.
  • Submit updated sitemaps: Once your sitemap is free of unnecessary parameters, submit the updated version to major search engines like Google and Bing through their respective webmaster tools. This submission tells search engines that your sitemap is ready to be crawled again with the updated structure.
  • Monitor indexation metrics: After updating and submitting your sitemap, monitor the indexation metrics available in tools like Ahrefs or Semrush. This will help you verify that the right pages are being indexed and that the exclusion of unnecessary parameters is having the desired effect on your SEO.

5. Restrict parameter indexing

Properly managing which URL parameters get indexed by search engines is essential for maintaining an efficient and effective SEO strategy. Here’s how to restrict the indexing of unnecessary parameters:

  • Identify parameters that do not change content: Begin by identifying which parameters in your URLs do not significantly alter the content of the pages. Common examples include parameters used for user sessions, tracking identifiers, or aesthetic preferences such as font size or colour theme.
  • Use the rel=”nofollow” attribute: Implement the rel=”nofollow” attribute on links that contain non-essential parameters. This attribute instructs search engines not to follow the link for crawling and indexing purposes, which helps prevent these parameterised URLs from being indexed.
  • Employ the meta robots tag: For pages where you cannot control external links or need to manage parameter indexing more broadly, use a meta robots tag with values such as noindex, follow. This tag tells search engines to not index the page but still follow the links on it, preserving link equity without indexing unnecessary URLs.
  • Use robots.txt to prevent crawling of specific parameters: If there are parameters that systematically generate duplicate content or are irrelevant for search engine indexing, consider blocking these URLs in your robots.txt file. For instance, you might add a rule like: Disallow: /*?session_id= . This rule prevents search engines from crawling any URL that includes the session_id parameter.
  • Consolidate tracking and technical parameters: Where possible, consolidate multiple tracking or technical parameters into fewer ones or handle them in the backend of your website. This reduces the number of URLs with parameters that need to be managed for indexing.

6. Optimise URL structure

Transforming URL parameters into more readable and structured paths can significantly enhance both your website’s SEO and the user experience. Here’s how to optimise your URL structure effectively:

  • Identify common parameters that can be path segments: Start by identifying parameters that frequently appear in your URLs, such as those used for categorising content (e.g., product categories, article types). Parameters that represent significant content variations, like category=shoes or type=blog, are ideal candidates for conversion into path segments.
  • Design a hierarchy for your URL structure: Organise your URL structure in a hierarchical manner that makes sense for both users and search engines. For instance, a URL with parameters for a clothing store might be transformed from example.com/products?category=men&item=shoes to example.com/men/shoes/. This structure is not only cleaner but also enhances the relevancy of each page, improving its SEO potential.
  • Implement URL rewriting rules: Use URL rewriting tools available in your server configuration (such as Apache’s mod_rewrite or IIS URL Rewrite) to automatically convert parameterised URLs to path-based URLs. This involves setting up rules that dynamically translate a structured path back into parameters that your website’s backend can understand.
  • Update internal linking: Once your URL structure is optimised, update all internal links to reflect the new path-based URLs. This helps prevent any broken links and ensures that link equity is passed efficiently throughout your site.
  • 301 redirects for old URLs: To maintain SEO value and ensure users do not encounter dead links, implement 301 redirects from the old parameterised URLs to the new structured paths. This tells search engines that the content has moved permanently, transferring the SEO history to the new URL.
  • Canonical tags for transitional periods: During transitional periods where both old and new URL structures might be accessible, use canonical tags to point to the new structured URLs as the preferred version. This prevents duplicate content issues and helps search engines understand your preferred URL format.
  • Monitor and analyse the impact: After implementing these changes, closely monitor your website’s analytics to see the impact on traffic and search engine rankings. Look for improvements in page load times, user engagement and organic search traffic, which can all benefit from cleaner, more descriptive URLs.

7. Be selective with indexing

Being selective about which URL parameters get indexed by search engines is vital to maintaining a clean, efficient SEO strategy that prevents duplicate content and ensures that only the most useful and relevant content is visible. Here’s how to refine your approach:

  • Identify impactful parameters: Start by identifying which parameters significantly alter the content of the page and thus merit indexing. These typically include parameters that affect product listings (such as type, category), or content filters that lead to substantially different information being displayed (like sortby=date).
  • Audit existing parameters: Conduct a thorough audit of all the parameters currently used on your website. Determine their purpose and impact on content. This will help you decide which parameters should be indexed and which should not.
  • Use the noindex tag for non-essential parameters: For URLs that are generated through non-essential parameters, add a meta robots tag with noindex, follow to the head of the HTML. This prevents the pages from being indexed while allowing search engines to crawl through the page to find links to other content.
  • Employ advanced robots.txt directives: For broader exclusion where necessary, update your robots.txt file to disallow crawling of specific parameterised URLs. This should be done cautiously to ensure you’re not blocking important URLs that could potentially enhance your SEO.
  • Parameter consolidation: Where possible, reduce the number of parameters used by consolidating them or redesigning the way content is delivered and navigated on your website. This can lead to fewer URLs needing review for indexing, making your SEO efforts more manageable and focused.

8. Monitor and test your URLs

Effectively managing the impact of URL parameters on your website requires regular monitoring and testing.

This is vital for understanding how changes in your parameter management strategies affect SEO and overall site performance. Here’s a detailed approach to doing this effectively:

  • Set up analytics tracking: Ensure that your analytics platform (such as Google Analytics) is correctly tracking all URLs, including those with parameters. This will help you see how users interact with different versions of your URLs and whether parameters like sorting or filtering options influence user behaviour.
  • Monitor search engine rankings: Use SEO tools to regularly check how URLs with parameters rank in search engine results. Tools like Moz, Semrush, or Ahrefs can track rankings for specific URLs and provide insights into how changes to these URLs affect your visibility.
  • Conduct A/B testing: Implement A/B testing to compare different strategies for managing URL parameters. For instance, test whether SEO performance improves when you use static URLs versus dynamic URLs with parameters.
  • Assess user engagement metrics: Look at engagement metrics such as bounce rate, page views and time on site for URLs with parameters. This data can indicate whether users find these pages useful or if changes might be needed to improve the user experience.
  • Evaluate the impact on site performance: Monitor how URL parameters affect site speed and performance. Tools like Google’s PageSpeed Insights can show if URL parameters cause any loading delays, especially on dynamic pages.
  • Regular reviews and adjustments: Based on the data collected from these tests and monitoring, regularly review and adjust your URL parameter strategies. This might mean changing how parameters are used, updating internal linking practices, or revising how parameters are represented in URLs.
  • Document findings and implement changes: Keep a record of your testing results and analysis. Use this data to inform broader SEO and content strategy decisions, ensuring that your management of URL parameters is always aligned with best practices and site goals.

9. Educate your team

Ensure that all relevant team members, including developers, content creators and marketers understand the importance of correct parameter handling.

Everyone should be aware of how to use URL parameters in ways that align with SEO best practices.

10. Advanced techniques (for SEO pros!)

To optimise the use of URL parameters further and enhance both SEO and user experience, consider implementing more sophisticated techniques such as:

  • Dynamic parameter adjustment: Develop capabilities on your website to dynamically adjust URL parameters based on user behaviour or preferences. This could involve simplifying URLs for returning users or customising parameters for different audience segments to enhance relevancy and improve engagement.
  • Progressive Web App (PWA) techniques: For sites using PWA technology, manage URL parameters in a way that maintains state without unnecessarily duplicating content across multiple URLs. This can improve loading times and keep user interactions smooth and responsive.
  • Machine learning insights: Use machine learning tools to analyse the impact of different URL parameters on user behaviour and SEO. This can help you identify which parameters contribute positively to user engagement and search rankings, allowing for more informed decisions on which parameters to maintain, modify, or discard.
  • Cross-device consistency: Ensure that URL parameters provide a consistent experience across all devices. For example, parameters that trigger specific actions or displays on mobile devices should be tested and optimised for desktop users as well, maintaining a uniform approach that aligns with SEO best practices.