Building out a new site, came across an SEO issue that did not think thoroughly in the past. Actually, it's fair to say didn't encounter before. 

First real life seo dilemma: to use or not to use special characters in URL —Steve 

If you follow the online SEO pundits, they hammer the idea of sticking with the basic characters like

  • letters of the alphabet (a-z)
  • hyphens (-)
  • underscores (_)
  • numbers (0-9)

Is there any particular reason you want to have a few odd characters in your URL scheme like

  • the arrow ->
  • quotation mark "
  • bracket characters [ ]
  • plus character +
  • at symbol @

No? Then just off the bat, remove them. For most of you, they'll serve no purpose1 especially since you have no reason to keep them.

Limiting the characters in a URL is definitely a good rule of thumb to keep things simple but can you sidestep this "rule"? And if so, when is it a good idea to buck that trend?

What does the SEO community say of this problem?

In essence, nothing. A quick search online had me tweet the following moments later. 

Nothing online is clear about which is "best"… in that case time for decisive action… but first thinking time —Steve 

To be honest, most of the search results is garbage and of no help, hence, hope this post may shine a different perspective. The majority of pages were spammy tutorials of a technical nature. The author's crucial fault is looking for other people's opinions first before forming one. Don't make the same mistake.

The URL character dilemma in context

The new website in question is going after an international audience, specifically Russian and Chinese. It's easy to go the default route and avoid embedding Russian or Chinese characters. The problem becomes apparent when you can't express certain foreign words and, at best, only find a cheap equivalent.

Think how'd you express the umlaut (ü)

Yeah, just made you think for a moment. That's good,

Why would you want to include strange symbols in your URL?

That is the question you'll need to ask. Generally, the only time a visitor will see your full URL online are

  1. the display URLs in Google and Bing’s SERP.
  2. on a webpage as pure text or anchor text.
  3. in the browser's URL bar.

Do you, as a foreigner, wish to connect with your audience?

Imagine you're selling boy shoes to a Columbian demographic. Since we know your Spanish is sharp, you're aware boys and shoes translate to "niños" and "zapatos" respectively,

When seen in the places mentioned, which URL scheme do you think better resonates with the festive Colombians?

  1. http://www.example.com/wepa_colombia/zapatos_de_niños
  2. http://www.example.com/wepa_colombia/zapatos_de_ninos

The difference is subtle but the tilde character (~)2 in #1 shows others you care for the nuance in their language and you're different from your online competitors. Will it win you a huge conversion bump? Possibly not but it's a small win in impressing your audience.

Perhaps the last example doesn't drive the difference home. Compare the next abstract example and tell me which website seems more dedicated towards the lovely Chinese folks?

  1. http://www.example-1.com/wo_ai_nidepengyou 3
  2. http://www.example-2.com/我爱你的朋友

The problem in implementing URL strange symbols?

Have you ever tried browsing a URL with a space character?

  • http://www.example.com/we_are connected.html

If you didn't know, a space character isn't allowed so the browser (or server, can't be sure) converts it to the string "%20", turning the above page URL to

  • http://www.example.com/we_are%20connected.html

This is the same for special characters. You'll need to encode the URL, which is important in an XML sitemap, and thus causes more work. What this means is, like the space character example, other ASCII characters will take the place of your symbols to represent them, usually in the pattern of "%E3%82%AB%E3%83". Prepare to see lots of the % characters for each special character.

There's a solution to all of this problem?

Taking time to allow these ideas to simmer and ensuring this extra mile is worth it, a final decision is reached.

Go w/ special characters in URL? nods WHY? International char familiar 2 natives. #SEO follows site. Not other ways + Internet will grow up —Steve

For my situation, the site needs to bring all signals of relevancy to the table (and not the SEO definition of relevancy) My goal is to fully cater to the foreign audience long term, starting out by making visitors feel welcomed before even entering the website. Imagine gong to a restaurant advertising itself as authentic Italian but upon entering in you find… another "race" cooking and serving the food. How would you feel?

You must also take into account that Baidu and Yandex can work with special characters just fine. In fact, you wouldn't stand out as a foreigner.

Lastly, you must also imagine that as the web becomes more international driven, will the URL characters allowed always be so confined? In the future, perhaps you won't need to encode them.

This is a case where a business goal, rather than SEO, is the decision factor: The desire to make a visual impact whenever a potential visitor sees the full URL. As the SEO, you'll just have to deal with the consequences and ensure all goes smoothly.

Taking the shortcut makes life easier but at a cost too high for this author. Granted, it doesn't add huge points but am going for the "ooh, these guys look like they know my country and culture" impression.

As to whether this solution applies to you4, take into consideration how important this detail is. It's nice to have these pretty URLs but how far are you willing to go for your audience. Given your budget, time, and reources, perhaps there's another direction where you'll get more bang for your buck. More importantly, whatever your decision you should be able to explain to others why you went this route instead of another. Knowing when to simplify your URLor complicate it is key.


  1. Unless you're a crafty SEO trying to grab a person's attention… hey, that's not bad you lil' fox (^_^) ↩︎

  2. The name of this character is eñe if you're curious ↩︎

  3. Granted the use of pinyin is a good alternative  ↩︎

  4. If you're still unsure, still need a definite answer and about to accuse Steve of giving a "maybe" answer, then strip out all those strange symbols. Go conservative. ↩︎

character
international
URL
Marketing
SEO

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