We’ve not only been asked this question, but have seen several instances where a site was completely rewritten to make URLs SEO friendly. Sometimes this recommendation goes nuclear, thus costing some companies a lot of time and money for very little gain. I worked with one company who spent millions upgrading their platform for this URL structure and found nothing but traffic and revenue loss as Google was served a huge plate of unknown URLs.
To me, this is a very old-school recommendation. When Google wasn’t as advanced, a keyword in the URL was something that could be weighed. It made sense for Google to look at their efficiencies and target things that were easy to process. Today, the value a “keyword friendly” URL has clearly diminished with the growth of Google’s processing power. SEOs around the industry test for this old recommendation (our company included) and find very little to no ranking influence these days, all things being even. Where some improvement may have been gained was on very non-competitive niches.
Usually, we see anything but positive growth. As new URLs are created, even if all of the URLs are 301 redirected (no easy feat if you have a database driven site), it’s like throwing a rock in the pond. Google has to manage the ripples as they get familiar with your new URLs. Usually there’s a drop which eventually returns to “about” the same. Keyword: usually.
However, an SEO friendly URL can be better for users who want to look at a URL like a breadcrumb trail or a description. For example:
– Toys R Us collection page URL: http://www.toysrus.com/family/index.jsp?categoryId=2256374 (not attractive or helpful to the user reading it)
– Hasbro Toy Shop: http://www.hasbrotoyshop.com/transformers (useful to the user who sees this URL in Google, or needs to remember it)
Would I now change the Toys R Us URL to match the Hasboro Toy Shop? Not on your life. If I were first building the site I’d probably opt to create a better URL, but there’s no way I’m going to risk good rank with Google at this point. Google’s John Mueller agrees, according to a response on Google’s Webmaster Help Forum.
At the end of the day, an SEO friendly URL is nice to have, but there are way bigger SEO initiatives to worry about. Google knows its their burden to rank pages based on usefulness to the user. Again, a contextual URL is nice to have, but a page has so many more important ways to prove their value.