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Smart SEO

<br />(March 2009 Issue)





Smart SEO

URL Rewriting Using ASP.NET and IIS 6.0


By Jeffrey Hasan


Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has become the major driver for Uniform Resource Locator (URL) rewriting in Web sites. A URL is the online discoverable address for a Web resource, including Web pages, and Web-hosted documents and images. For simplicity, this article focuses on Web pages as the Web resource of primary concern.


In the world of online search engines, page rank and link equity are a measure of how relevant and popular a specific Web page is for a certain search request. High page rank is what enables your Web page to appear on the first page of Google search results, instead of the thirtieth. In the ultra-competitive world of online commerce, this difference is significant, as Web site visitors are most likely to select their Web site destination from the first or second pages of choices.


With SEO, the Web site becomes less important than a specific Web page, because search engines deconstruct your Web site into relevant pages. High page rank and link equity cannot be achieved overnight; instead, they must be earned over a period of time. And once earned, they must be preserved which means your Web page URLs cannot change. Otherwise, you must start rebuilding the page rank and link equity from the ground up.


URL rewriting enables your Web application to support SEO-friendly URLs and logical site navigation, while using a different physical navigation structure in the backend. URL rewriting also allows you to make necessary adjustments to your Web site navigation structure without compromising your search engine rankings.


Note: This article focuses on URL rewriting using IIS 6.0 and all versions of ASP.NET. The newer IIS 7.0 and ASP.NET 3.5 integrate differently and provide different options for URL rewriting. This will be the topic of a companion article to appear in a future issue of asp.netPRO.

What Is URL Rewriting?

URL rewriting involves intercepting an incoming HTTP request, then remapping the request to an alternate URL. URL rewriting can be performed at the Web server level or at the Web application level. At the Web server level, the URL rewriting is handled directly by Internet Information Server (IIS), in the case of Windows server platforms. At the Web application level, the URL rewriting may be handled at various points within the application execution workflow. Your choice of intercept point depends on the nature of the URL rewriting and the type of Web resource being requested.


What Is an SEO-friendly URL?

SEO-friendly URLs avoid using querystring parameters and use qualified path formats instead. Here s an example of an SEO-friendly (static) URL for an HP printer on an e-commerce site:


Here s an alternate (dynamic) URL for the same product, but constructed in an unfriendly way for SEO:


The contrast between the two URLs is clear: the friendly (static) URL has a simple path structure, whereas the unfriendly (dynamic) URL uses multiple querystring parameters. Search engines interpret unique combinations of query parameters as different Web pages, which dilute the relevance of the printers destination node within the e-commerce site.


Even better from an SEO perspective is to load up the product URL with rich keywords, as in:


This URL format preserves the SEO-friendly simple qualified path structure, and adds a keyword-rich sub-path section to the URL. In this example, 876543.html could correspond to a product identifier, such as a stock keeping unit (SKU).


Finally, you could eliminate the .html Web page file extension and publish a simplified SEO-friendly URL, as in:


In this example the product SKU is part of the URL, but is not called out as such. The Web server is instructed how to interpret this sub portion of the URL, and could in fact ignore everything that comes after the product SKU portion of the URL. In effect, the Web server considers the relevant URL to be:


In reality, this URL doesn t have to physically exist on the Web server. In fact, SEO-friendly URLs typically do not, being instead logical constructs that are tailored for the benefit of the search engine and the site visitor rather than the application developer.


Now you can see the need for a URL bridge mechanism that rewrites logical URLs into their associated physical URLs. This URL bridge will interpret incoming SEO-friendly logical URLs and map them on the Web server to the actual physical resource address. In the above example, the Web server could process the incoming SEO-friendly product URL, then redirect the user to the actual product page URL, as in:


How IIS 6.0 and ASP.NET Process HTTP Requests

Remember when you were first learning ASP.NET, and you skipped over the section that described the processing workflow for incoming HTTP requests? And how the ASP.NET engine processes the Web page and returns the HTTP response output via the Web server? Right, that section. Well, it s time to go back to the textbook, because you need to know how HTTP requests are processed by the Web server and the ASP.NET engine. Only then can you understand where HTTP requests can be intercepted, should you need to rewrite the requested URL and redirect the site visitor to an alternate location.


Grab a textbook if you have one handy; otherwise, refer to Figure 1, which summarizes the important steps in processing incoming HTTP requests and returning HTTP responses.


Figure 1: The ASP.NET HTTP pipeline.


Briefly, here s how it works. The client browses a Web page by typing a URL into their browser. The browser relays the HTTP request to the Web server over the Internet. The Web server, in turn, parses the URL to determine the type of resource being requested, whether it is a Web page, an image, or some other type of file.


Let s assume the client requests an ASP.NET page, with a *.aspx extension. The Web server, in this case, IIS, will direct the HTTP request to the ASP.NET engine, alternatively known as the ASP.NET HTTP pipeline. The HTTP request passes through a variable number of HTTP modules, which include standard modules (e.g., for session state management and Forms Authentication), plus any custom modules that the Web site developer has installed in the pipeline. After passing through the sequence of HTTP modules, the HTTP request reaches the dedicated HTTP handler for *.aspx Web pages (other Web resource types will have their own dedicated handlers, such as *.asmx). The HTTP handler executes the compiled code for the Web page that was requested by the client. Finally, an HTTP response is returned to the client through the ASP.NET engine and out of the Web server. The HTTP response includes an HTTP header code that could include:

  • HTTP 200. The requested resource was found at the URL location and a response has been successfully returned.
  • HTTP 301. The requested resource has been permanently redirected to an alternate URL location and a response has been successfully returned.
  • HTTP 404. The requested resource was not found. Web users know this status code by the common Page Not Found default status page.


From a search engine perspective, these are the most significant of the various HTTP status codes, and the implications are noteworthy. A search engine spider successfully indexes HTTP 200 and 301 responses, and for the latter it will permanently record the new URL location for the Web resource and migrate the previous Web resource s page rank and history. However, for HTTP 404 responses the search engine spider will drop the Web resource from its index, thereby losing the page rank and link equity that this Web resource formerly had. This is why you should always redirect users from old pages to new ones, rather than present them with a Page Not Found error. URL redirection allows you to preserve hard-earned page rank and link equity, and so is essential for any SEO-focused Web site.


URL Rewriting in ASP.NET and IIS 6.0

Before you can rewrite a URL you must intercept the incoming HTTP request and inspect it. Let s assume that the Web site visitor has requested an ASP.NET Web page on your Web site. There are five appropriate locations to intercept HTTP requests within the Web server and ASP.NET HTTP pipeline. These are shown in Figure 1 by numbered location; they are:

1)     Within IIS using an ISAPI filter, which is a plug-in that extends the functionality of IIS.

2)     Using a custom HTTP handler to replace the default ASP.NET engine s *.aspx handler.

3)     Using a custom HTTP module to intercept and inspect the HTTP request before it reaches the ASP.NET handler.

4)     Within the hosting Web site s Global.asax application file (e.g., in the Application_BeginRequest event handler).

5)     Within the compiled Web page code (e.g., in the Page_Load event handler).


Of these five options, we ll exclude looking at ISAPI filters and custom HTTP handlers, which are the first and second options, respectively. ISAPI filters are beyond the scope of our focus. Custom HTTP handlers are also out of scope, mainly because the URL rewriting modifications that we could make there can mostly be made in other code constructs instead, such as within HTTP modules.


Let s examine each of the remaining three options, and expand on how URL rewrites are accomplished using ASP.NET and IIS.


URL Rewriting in the Web Application s Global.asax File

The Global.asax file is an optional file that resides within the Web application, and which provides programmatic access to application lifecycle events and the HTTP request and response messages. The Global.asax file is like a simplified HTTP module, one that cannot be reused across multiple applications, but which is easier to use because it requires no special configuration within the Web application. With the Global.asax file you can simply start coding into application and session-level event handlers. The IIS Web server will bounce back any direct HTTP requests that are made on this file. In short, the Global.asax file lets you stay focused on code and not be concerned about deployment issues.


Figure 2 illustrates a redirect scenario, where the site navigation for a product Web site has been redesigned. Originally, the Web site served product pages from a subdirectory named forsale. However, the site navigation has been flattened so that the product pages have all been moved to the root of the application. Solution Explorer contains two pages named 876543.aspx, one under the Web root (the active product page), the other under the forsale subdirectory (the obsolete product page). The Web site has built a high page ranking for the product page under the forsale subdirectory, so they want site visitors to continue to access this subdirectory but these incoming requests must be redirected on the server to the corresponding page in the Web root.


Figure 2: URL rewriting for an obsolete Web page.


Figure 3 provides the code listing for the Global.asax Application_Start event handler. The code first looks for HTTP request URLs that contain the forsale subdirectory. If none are found, the request is allowed to execute normally. However, if a match is found, the code uses a regular expression to extract the Web page name and rewrite the URL so this page is served from the Web root instead of from the forsale subdirectory.


void Application_Start(object sender, EventArgs e)


 // Code that runs on application startup

 string requestPage;

 string requestURL = Context.Request.Url.ToString().ToLower();

 if (requestURL.Contains("/forsale/"))


   Regex regex = new Regex(@"([0-9]+).aspx", RegexOptions.IgnoreCase);

    MatchCollection matches = regex.Matches(requestURL);

   if (matches.Count > 0)


     // Rewrite the URL

     requestPage = matches[0].Groups[1].ToString();

     Context.RewritePath("../" + requestPage + ".aspx");

     // Set HTTP Status 301 - Permanent Redirection

     Context.Response.Status = "301 Moved Permanently";

     Context.Response.AddHeader("Location", Context.Request.Url.AbsoluteUri);




Figure 3: Using Context.RewritePath in Global.asax.


After the URL is rewritten, the code manually updates the HTTP headers to record an updated HTTP status code 301 (permanent redirection) and the new fully qualified location of the replacement page. Without this update, the new page would have rendered, but the browser URL would have displayed the old URL and the HTTP status code would have read 200. This is adequate for people visiting the site, but not for search engine spiders, which need to record permanent redirections. Recall that this is the only way for the search engine spider to transfer to the replacement page the page ranking and link equity of the previous page.


Note that you should not use Response.Redirect in place of the RewritePath method, because this issues an HTTP status code 302 back to the client, which indicates a temporary redirect. This status code is confusing to search engine spiders, which will not drop the original URL from their index, but they may also record the destination URL. If the original and destination URLs appear very different, or if they are in a different domain, you risk having your site dropped, and with it all the link equity that you ve earned. This is because less reputable sites make it a practice to guide you to one Web site and then redirect you to a completely different one to which you did not intend to go. So to be safe, never issue an HTTP status code 302, either directly or indirectly. Always use HTTP status code 301 to indicate permanent redirection.


URL Rewriting in an ASP.NET Web Page

From an SEO perspective, a URL rewrite within an ASP.NET page occurs too late in the process lifecycle because the HTTP request has been allowed to get all the way to the destination page without interception. From an SEO perspective it is unlikely that you would want to rewrite a URL at this late stage. For one thing, the original destination Web page is now already rendering, which defeats the purpose of redirecting the visitor somewhere else: It would be more efficient to redirect them earlier, if that s what you intend to do.


An SEO-driven URL rewrite and redirect is not about intelligence, it is about rules. It is possible that an ASP.NET Web page code-behind file contains some decision logic that is needed for a URL redirect. But this would typically be a different kind of URL redirect, not related to an SEO-driven URL rewrite. In short, do not use the ASP.NET Web page code-behind file for SEO-driven URL rewrites, although feel free to use this location for other types of URL redirects.


URL Rewriting Using an HTTP Module

HTTP modules are assemblies that plug in to the ASP.NET HTTP request pipeline. They intercept all incoming HTTP requests to a Web application and contain various event handlers that can be used to access the details of the HTTP request and modify it, if necessary. Custom HTTP modules can be developed in .NET, deployed on the Web server, and configured for use by registering it in a Web application s configuration file (Web.config).


HTTP modules are straightforward to write, but the URL redirection logic can be tedious. If you don t want to write your own URL rewriting infrastructure code, I recommend using an open source module called UrlRewriter.NET, which allows you to configure your custom URL rewriting rules directly within the Web application s Web.config file using regular expression pattern-matching syntax. Not only can you encode rules, but you can add conditional statements to separate out rule groups based on the incoming request type.


Figure 4 shows an example of a Web.config file for an application that uses UrlRewriter.NET with a regular expression pattern-matching rule to map a keyword-rich product URL to a querystring formatted URL that is more suitable for generic database lookups. In this case, the rewrite is from:





       to="^/catalog.aspx?sku=$1" />

Figure 4: Rewrite a URL using UrlRewriter.NET.


The code listing in Figure 4 redirects the HTTP request to a different URL, but the HTTP status code in the response is returned as 200, which is not an official redirect code. This is OK if your Web site visitor is a person, but for search engine spiders you ll want to return HTTP status code 301 to inform the search engine to record the permanent redirect, and transfer page rank and link equity from the previous URL. In this case you should use the configuration element instead of the element. The element returns the permanent redirect HTTP status code 301 by default.


UrlRewriter.NET is not the only available module, but it is currently one of the more popular ones, and has received good coverage in books and blog postings. In addition, being an open source project, the source code is freely available on for you to browse and modify. You can download UrlRewriter.NET from



SEO-driven URL rewrites are essential to preserving hard-earned page rank and link equity for Web pages. The leading search engines assign higher rankings to Web pages that support keyword-rich URLs; have many incoming links from reputable sites; and have longevity. URL rewrites allow you to preserve hard-earned search engine rankings even if your site navigation needs to change. IIS and ASP.NET provide good technical support for URL rewrites, especially in combination with popular third-party modules.


Source code accompanying this article is available for download.


Jeffrey Hasan, MCSD, is Senior VP of Strategic Consulting Services at Axis Technical Group, Inc. ( He has been a professional systems architect and developer for 12 years. His work focuses on enterprise integration, business intelligence, data warehouses, and workflow-driven portals using SharePoint. Jeff has authored several .NET books, including Expert Service Oriented Architecture in C# (Apress, 2006).




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