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How To Use Vanity URLs and Avoid SEO Self-Cannibalization

Posted by MatthewEgan

Understanding URL structures is one of the few technical SEO flavors that every search professional must fully understand to be successful. Rand did an excellent Whiteboard Friday on the topic of Sub-domains vs. Sub-folders and 301s vs. rel=canonical tags (and it’s a must watch), but many business owners like to leverage print and social media with their website and they prefer a sub-domain because it is easier to include in print or in a Facebook post.

Today I wanted to cover some fun and effective uses of Vanity URLs we’ve employed at Image Freedom that’ll allow you to benefit from SEO best practices without sacrificing ease of access for your users.

What is a Vanity URL?

A vanity URL could be a completely unique URL totally removed from your main URL. It could also be a sub-domain that uses a 301 Redirect to point to a page deep within a sub-folder to make it easier for your users to get there. What separates a vanity URL from a micro-site URL or a sub-domain URL is that we never show Google that URL, it is purely for users to type in, such as in print banners or on a vehicle wrap, or for use on social media postings.

Using a Vanity URL for Multiple Keyword Sites

Let’s say you own a company that deals with air conditioning, plumbing and electrical work. This is a complex group of keywords, so you want all the help you can get. Some wisdom might suggest that you create three websites–one that focuses on AC keywords, one that focuses on plumbing and one for electrical services. This wouldn’t be an awful idea, but you’d be optimizing and building links for three unique domains and those domains would not share authority with each other. You would literally be tripling the work, too.

This is an excellent example of where Vanity URLs could give you extra options that still capitalize on SEO best practices. For example, say, our main company website is acme.com, but we might also register ACMAAir.com, ACMEPlumbing.com and ACMEElectric.com, one for each area of our business. Instead of building a website for each of these lines of services, we would choose our biggest line of business to be the primary keyword on the homepage (e.g., AC if you live in Texas as we do) and you would then place your plumbing keywords in http://www.acme.com/plumbing/ and your electrical keywords in http://www.acme.com/electrician/.

It is important that you don’t self-cannibalize your keywords. So while I have assigned the AC keywords to the homepage, you then also don’t want to create an AC landing page that repeats those keywords. If you must create a page that talks about AC (and in this case you do for the users sake), this is a great time to use the the rel=canonical tag on the AC page and point that topic back to the homepage. This way you are not fighting with your own sitemap for keyword prominence, which would hurt the chances for either page to rank. Self-cannibalization is one of the most common SEO mistakes we see in sitemaps. Fortunately, it’s one of the easiest to fix.

To start out, our top-level sitemap would look something like this:

So now that we’ve laid out our top level sitemap, we can assess the use of Vanity URLs. We’ll use an example using wraps, the all-over vinyl coatings applied to vehicles to highlight brands and their services.

Many companies use wraps on their vehicles and desire to include the URL in an easy to remember formatting. However, different lines of business often have their own vehicles or printed materials. This is where our Vanity URL comes in. To promote our plumbing pages and provide a great URL for use on our plumbers trucks, we could use ACMEPlumbing.com. Then, instead of building a whole unique site there, we simply 301 redirect that URL to http://www.acme.com/plumbing/. Google will then index your sub-folder for plumbing, but your users will be able to easily remember and type in your ACMEPlumbing.com vanity URL, satisfying both groups.

Our final top level sitemap would look something like this:

Google cannot read the text contained within an image. The crawlers can, however, read the file name and the alt attribute. But if you want to include keywords on a page where you otherwise shouldn’t (such as placing plumbing keywords on your air conditioning-focused homepage) then using images is a great way to include language for the user, but then hide that language from Google. In the above example, I might include banners that talk about plumbing or electrical services but include that messaging solely within an image so it does not dilute my AC keyword placement. If you must include a contrary keyword (such as plumbing in this example) then make sure the keyword is a link to the appropriate landing page. In this case it would link through to http://www.acme.com/plumbing/.

Using a Vanity URL for a Franchise

In businesses with multiple locations, and those with franchises, it can be very tempting to segregate all of your different websites with unique URLs or on sub-domains. An excellent compromise here is to do both.

If I am selling cupcakes out of my ACMECupcakes.com franchise, I might want to register the ACMECupcakesSA.com domain name for San Antonio, but by placing my franchise offsite, not only am I starting from scratch with a brand new domain name (that will have no history or authority), I am also not able to share in the authority and history already created by the head office franchise at ACMECupcakes.com.

This is an issue I see quite a lot, and it winds up seriously hurting the franchise’s SEO opportunities because the franchisee is not able to share in the authority and ranking potential of the franchiser. Thus the new franchisee has to start at zero and work their way up the rankings. By utilizing a vanity URL, I can point my ACMECupcakesSA.com URL to ACMECupcakes.com/SanAntonio and still have a nice short URL to place on my business cards

Each new city would have a sub-folder dedicated to that city, with appropriate keyword placement to rank in that city and appropriate internal linking so that the search engines know what the page is about. The business could them purchase a unique URL like ACMECupcakesAustin.com or ACMECupcakesDFW.com and have that URL seamlessly 301’d over to their sub-folder.

The fun thing about the 301 Redirect is that if anyone accidentally links to ACMECupcakesSA.com that link authority will be sent along through the 301 to the San Antonio sub-page. So even if you get links to either URL, Google still knows which to index and assign the authority to because of the 301.

Have Your Cake and Canonical It Too!

The key to any of the tactics listed above is the desire to control what Google indexes, and under what URL a given page is associated. The more indexed URLs you have, the more divided your authority becomes. Just as important, as you create new sub-pages, you don’t want those sub-pages to be starting completely from scratch with no history and no authority to speak of. The idea is to work smarter so we don’t have to work harder. The above techniques and tactics like them are just one way that you can have it both ways–capitalizing on the benefits of SEO while still leaving you all the tools to promote your sub-page as if it were a site all its own.

Summary Points

Sub-Domain: Google does not give a sub-domain equal authority as the domain it is under, thus in most cases the correct thing to use is a Sub-Folder. You can still 301 redirect a Sub-Domain to a Sub-Folder to use that Sub-Domain as a Vanity URL if you really really want to.

Sub-Folder: Sub-folders inherit the authority of the domain they are a part of, but you can still use a Vanity URL and a 301 redirect to give a direct URL path to the content on the sub-folder. The 301 redirect will send Google to the destination sub-folder path (which will be indexed), and the Vanity URL itself will not be indexed.

Vanity URL: A Vanity URL is a URL not meant to be indexed by Google, but instead might be included in print materials, on vehicle wraps, or as a link shared on social media. The Vanity URL is forwarded to a main site URL (often times a sub-folder) and only the destination is indexed by Google, the Vanity URL itself remains a useful (but passive to Google) tool.

Duplicate Content: With micro-websites it is important to remember that Google will lump websites together that have the same website content/copy. Thus it is important to write unique copy for each page that you want to rank, even if the content is very similar, it cannot be semantically identical otherwise it could hurt all micro-site’s chances of ranking.

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