URLs serve as the architecture for your website. Each page will have a unique URL signifying its location on the internet. Regardless of a page’s filename, though, you can affix its URL with a forward slash.
Known as a trailing slash, countless websites use it in their URLs. Even Apple uses a trailing slash in its URLs, which you can see firsthand when navigating through the Cupertino tech company’s website at apple.com. Each page on Apple’s official website has a trailing slash in its URL. Considering that other prolific websites like Google and Microsoft omit it, you may be wondering whether you should use a trailing slash in your site’s URLs.
The Basics of a Trailing Slash in URLs
In the past, a trailing slash in a URL indicated the location was a directory. Conversely, the lack of a trailing slash in a URL indicated the location was a file. When building their websites, webmasters would link to their pages using URLs that didn’t contain a trailing slash. If they used a trailing slash, visitors who clicked their links would see a list of all files, including pages and images, stored in the respective directory.
With that said, the use of a trailing slash is no longer a clear indication of whether a URL points to a directory or file. Websites today are more complex than their counterparts built in the past. Most modern websites are built with a content management system (CMS) that dynamically generates pages from multiple files and sources. Therefore, visitors will often see the same content, regardless of whether the page’s URL contains a trailing slash.
Here’s an example of a page with two URLs, one of which contains a trailing slash while the other does not:
For most CMS-built websites, visitors won’t see any difference between these two types of URLs. Rather, they’ll see the same page with the same content display in their web browser.
How Search Engines Handle URLs With a Trailing Slash
The use of a trailing slash typically won’t affect a visitor’s experience, but that’s not the case for search engines. When search engines crawl a link with a trailing slash, they’ll treat it as a separate page. The link may point to the same page as a link without a trailing slash. Nonetheless, search engines will process the two URLs as separate and unique entities.
Because they process trailing slash URLs and non-trailing slash URLs separately, search engines may index the wrong version. Building links with both types of URLs, for instance, creates duplicate content. After crawling both links, search engines will realize the URLs to which they point contain the same content. While they won’t punish your website for having two URLs with the same content, they’ll only index one of the URLs.
According to Google, however, it only perceives subpages with a trailing slash in their URLs as separate pages. In other words, you can use a trailing slash when linking to your website’s homepage without inadvertently tricking Google into thinking it’s separate from the non-trailing slash URL.
Use a Consistent URL Format
You can either include or omit a trailing slash in your website’s URL, but you should use a consistent format. Whether you’re building internal links or backlinks to your website’s pages, don’t use a combination of trailing slash URLs and non-trailing slash URLs. Build all links either with a trailing slash or without a trailing slash.
Using a combination of trailing slash URLs and non-trailing slash URLs won’t necessarily lead to fewer indexed pages or lower search rankings. Nonetheless, it makes it more difficult for search engines to crawl your website. With two versions of each page, search engines will have to consume twice the resources to crawl your website. By using a single URL format, on the other hand, search engines can efficiently and quickly crawl your website.
Redirect to Your Preferred Version
In addition to using a consistent format, you should create redirects to your preferred version. You can’t control all links pointing to your website’s pages; you can only control the links that you personally build. As a result, other websites may link to some of your site’s pages using the wrong URL format. Redirecting to your preferred version ensures that all human users and search engines who follow these third-party links will see the correct URL format.
You can redirect to your preferred version using 301 redirects. A 301 redirect is a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status code indicating that a page or file has permanently moved to a different location. When a human user or a search engine accesses a URL to which a 301 redirect is applied, they will be redirected to a separate URL.
To create 301 redirects, you’ll need to open a text file in your website’s root folder known as a .htaccess file. If your website doesn’t already have one, you can create one using Notepad. You can then add the redirect code for each page on a separate line. The redirect code should start with “Redirect 301” followed by a space, the directory path to the page’s unpreferred version, another space and then complete URL of the page’s preferred version.
Here’s what a proper 301 redirect looks like:
• Redirect 301 /category/sample-page https://www.example.com/category/sample-page/
Avoid Using a Trailing Slash in Filenames
While you can use them in link URLs, you shouldn’t use a trailing slash in filenames. The presence of a trailing slash in a filename confuses web browsers. Web browsers will think the filename is part of a directory, and when they discover that it doesn’t contain any files, they’ll display a 404 error code. Format all filenames for your website using only letters, numbers and hyphens.
Using URLs with a trailing slash will neither help nor harm your website as long as you are consistent and redirect to your preferred version. Trailing slashes were traditionally used to indicate a directory. With most websites now using a CMS, trailing slash URLs function the same as non-trailing slash URLs for visitors.