Search Optimization With Hyphenated URLs

    May 19, 2004

It’s widely believed that hyphenated urls that include your primary keywords can help you rank higher for those keywords. For my entomological supply site I might create a url like this:, especially if I specialize in butterfly nets.

Discuss hyphenated urls in WebProWorld.

SEO Card Tricks for your URL...
SEO Card Tricks for your URL…

I’ve seen evidence of Google treating url-based hyphenated and unhyphenated keyword phrases differently in their image search.

A search for “FatBastard” shows all the images that contain FatBastard in the url, while a “fat bastard” search shows the urls with fat-bastard to describe their content.

There is, however, also evidence that Google does not require the hyphens in order to understand that the search terms are in the url when you search their page index, as a search for car insurance demonstrates.

You’ll notice if you scan down the results that the terms appear bolded in the url, both the word “insurance” (3rd result 5-17-04) as well as the compressed phrase “carinsurance” (6th result). That the terms appear bolded however is no indication that Google actually uses this information in the algorithm.

In the SES New York conference crawler session earlier this year Craig Neville-Manning said that Google does index words from the url, but they don’t have as much weight as text links. He added quickly though that you should not engineer your links for the algorithm.

Tim Mayer of Yahoo said that, “as a user if I see a domain with lots of hyphens it’s usually a low quality site.”

In the same session Greg Boser, SEO maven, said, “hyphenated domains have come and gone.”

His opinion though is not representative of the posters at SEOChat, and if you’re in a position to build a site from scratch I believe it’s a good idea to remember Craig’s comment: “Google does index words from the url.” Though they don’t have as much weight as text links (and text links have LOTS of weight…), if you’re at the outset of building a site consider hyphens and keyphrases in your url if it makes sense and seems logical.

One argument against hyphenated urls is that they don’t “brand” well. If you’re telling someone on the phone or at a conference that your site’s called you have to explain all the hyphens in there. And it just looks bad. I guess I sort of have to agree with Tim here – I don’t necessarily expect high quality from hyphenated sites.

It all comes down to what you’re selling and who you’re selling to.

The hyphenated url discussion continues in the SEOChat forum, where they discussed, among other things, a possible filter in Google that assigns a penalty for hyphenated urls.

The difficulty in such a discussion of course is isolating what changes to a site really created a drop in rankings. As CallenB said, “I believe the reason many of the hyphen sites have been ‘filtered’ is simply because people with those sites tend to over optimize to the point of de-optimizing…”

DazzlinDonna provided a scenario intended as possible evidence for the existence of such a filter: “I have two sites that ranked top 10 pre-florida. One has 2 hyphens, one has 3 hyphens. Florida kicked them out of the serps. To this day, if I do the -asdf -asdf -asdf thing (at least 8 of them), they both show up in the top 10 again.”

However, Atlanta Realtor quickly pointed out that “My site has 3 hyphens in it and I am ranked in G[oogle] for alot of my phrases in top main phrase in G I am ranked 14…”

The wormman, whose site contains four hyphens, mentioned that his site disappeared after the Florida update but has since returned to its pre-update position.

Vord, arguing for the lack of a filter, pointed out that hyphenated urls can have some benefit to the friendliness of your site. “My feeling is it helps me figure out what my files are about, and it helps searchers confirm the content of the page before clicking a search engine listing. There are definite accessibility benefits for hyphenating.”

If you have the exact same helpful keywords in the urls of your files, while one is hyphenated and the other isn’t, does this really help the visitors? Perhaps a little, and if there’s a slight boost from Google’s algorithm then you should consider it. (Again, we have only Craig’s statement from March that there’s a slight benefit.)

Vord concedes in a later post that, “Blatent keyword stuffed URLs… …may not be useful.”

OptWizard shouts at the end of one of his posts, “HYPHENS RULE.”

While they may not rule, they certainly are worth investigating. But be sure to test it out on your sandbox site (I hope it’s not your sandboxed site) first to see what works best.

From the Hyphenated URLs – Does Google Penalize? thread at SEOChat and a tip from the SEORoundtable.

Garrett French is the editor of iEntry’s eBusiness channel. You can talk to him directly at WebProWorld, the eBusiness Community Forum.