SEO Saturday: Hyphens in URLs Beat Underscores

Search Engine Optimization or SEO is something I keep reminding myself I need to learn more about. I’ve got some of it worked out and have found invaluable the free, downloadable guide Google released some time ago – Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. But to improve my knowledge and hopefully the findability of my blogs, I’m embarking on some self-education. So my plan is to focus on something about SEO once a week, at the beginning of the weekend, and report here in a series which I am grandly titling SEO Saturday.

Today I’m looking at the question of whether hyphens or dashes in URLs are better than underscores. As the title of this post declares, it seems that the verdict is no contest in favor of hyphens.

Why would this question concern me?

Well, having spent about half an hour today trying to find a good domain name for a new project and discovering the top level, dot com version of each name I picked was not available, I got to thinking about using a hyphenated (i.e. with a dash or dashes) domain name, just as an SEO expert colleague of mine does regularly. In the particular instance this would make quite good sense, because each of the dot com names I looked at was parked, that is it was not being used for a “real live” website or blog. So I would not, on the face of it, be competing with someone active in the same market space with a live site and the same site name.

And indeed the dot com domain version of the ideal name I wanted for the new site proved to be available in the hyphenated version.

Maybe it was time to get over my prejudice in favor of “continuous” domain names and get into the hyphenated variety?

Then, no doubt because I was thinking about all this, I noticed in my FriendFeed stream a video by Google searchmeister Matt Cutts about hyphenated versus underscored URLs. Not that I’d been thinking about using underscores, but the video was brief and I found it very interesting for the implicit insight it gave into how the people behind the scenes at Google think and work.

Verdict on the particular question? Google’s machines read hyphens in URLs as separators, i.e. indicating separate words and thus, Matt indicates, hyphens are better than underscores. At least, better for now. He acknowledges that they might change the algorithm one day.

The next question is: given the choice between a hyphenated¬† dot com name and a non-hyphenated, “wholeword” dot net, or dot org or other alternative to dot com, which is better?

I’ve done a bit of searching online but don’t know what the “right” answer is to that, although there does appear to be a consensus of “one hyphen good, two or more hyphens bad”.

Advice and comments welcome.

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About Des Walsh

I show business owners and other professionals how to navigate the social media maze and use LinkedIn effectively. I'm an author, speaker, business coach, social media strategist and LinkedIn specialist. Connect with me on LinkedIn, Google Plus and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get my weekly Social Business Bites.

Comments

  1. Links play another important role in your rankings: They help to determine which words you will rank for. If another site links to you using the anchor (link) text, “pumpkin pie recipe”, then they’re saying that your page is relevant to “pumpkin pie recipe”. You have one vote for “pumpkin pie recipe”. If you get a lot of links/votes that use “pumpkin pie recipe” then the search engines will think your page is very relevant to that topic, and you’ll find yourself ranking well for “pumpkin pie recipe”.

  2. Beth
    I’m mystified. I tested that seomoz tool with the url for this site and that of my deswalsh.com site and got scores of .397 and .394 respectively, with an assessment that the “guess” is “not spammy” but noting that they say 1 is very bad. How can my name or the name of this blog be in any way spammy? Unless in the latter case you could say that “home” or “business” or the conjunction have been abused enough to trigger an alert – but not, surely, an out of context spam “rating”. What I thought was particularly odd was that http://www.deswalsh.com got .394 and without the www got a worse rate of .444 – but it’s the same site. What am I missing here? How do you find the tool helpful?

  3. Jim
    You may well be right but I have to say I like the “radio” test – as in, a url you can read out easily on a radio program and be confident people can get it down easily: and on that criterion I believe the reliability-of-transcription criterion is easier met with “alloneword” than with hyphens – or “dashes” as many people say, with the obvious risk of an underscore being inserted instead of a hyphen.

  4. Now that you mention it, the hyphenated domain that was ranking #1 in my test has fallen below the first 1000 results on MSN, while the non hyphenated has moved up to number 1. However, I still think that mississauga-real-estate-agent.info is easier to read than mississaugarealestateagent.info…. apparently MSN and Google care little for my opinion.

    Kinda wondering why MSN would make changes that reduce their differentiation from Google in terms of SERPs. Anyone have a good explanation for THAT?

    cheers,

    Jim

  5. Shawn Davis says:

    Has anyone noticed any MSN search changes over the last few days? I noticed that MSN is putting penalties on “hyphenated” domains now.. Has anyone else notice this? Domains with hypens used to appear in the first page of SERPs, now there not in the first 100!!! Pretty dramatic change..

    Has anyone else noticed this recently?

  6. I’m trying to figure this out now to. The other factor to consider is spam detection. This tool is pretty helpful: http://www.seomoz.org/user_files/spam-detection/

  7. I’ve always found hyphenated URLs easier to read than alloneword URLs and it seems like even-spell-checkers like them better than non hyphenated words mushed together. In this instance I think Google may be getting it wrong from an ease of use standpoint (easier to read = easier to use)….
    Jim

  8. Leo
    Good point. Some SEO people talk about the “radio test”: i.e. your domain name should be easy for someone to copy down if you spell it out over the radio. For me, one hyphen (or dash) in a domain name does not seem too much to get down. The radio test is one of the reasons I don’t much fancy ‘cute’ names. I have one which I am obliged to use for sales purposes which has a numeral 4 in it: so when I am spelling out the name I have to say “numeral 4” and hope people don’t write down http://www.partnamenumeralfourrestofname.com

  9. Yeah Jim, SEO is irritating like that. Thanks for enlightening me on hyphen usage, but it really makes it harder for humans, specially if you’re referring to your domain over the phone, on a conference, for example.
    Maybe one hyphen – that’s it.
    Leo Saraceni

    Leo Saracenis last blog post..Michael Losier, The Law Of Attraction & LifePath Unlimited: A Powerful Combination

  10. Thanks for sharing this, Jim. Quite fascinating. I have always thought the “single word” version would be better, even though I did not know how that worked in algorithm terms (I confess I did fudge on math study in my schooldays).

  11. Hi Des,

    Good post and I found the video blogs by Mr. Cutts very interesting as well. In regards to the non-hyphenated vs hyphenated URLs, I’ve been running a test for the past 14 months on http://www.mississaugarealestateagent.info(NHS) and http://www.mississauga-real-estate-agent.info(HS). These are single page sites with content that is somewhat different, but not by very much. For the first year or so I did not do any linking to these sites at all, but the NHS did show up in Google SERPs at about 600 after 3 months of the test starting. The HS did not show at all in the first 1000 until I started doing some link building. Since I added about 10 to 15 blog post links to each site, the NHS site has started to appear consistently in the Google first 1000 (currently at 126 today), while the HS appeared briefly last week at about 325, it is not currently showing in the first 1000.

    An interesting side note to this is that for MSN, the HS is currently ranking at #1 while the NHS is at #4. Neither site showed up in the MSN results until after the links were put in place.

    Yahoo shows the NHS at 7 and Altavista shows it at 30, while neither shows the HS at all yet.

    Based on these data, I’d have to say the non-hyphenated domain name is better from a search perspective.

    Cheers,

    Jim