SEO Corner – Keyword-rich URLs and search engine visibility

    August 22, 2003

Question: Can an search engine’s bot distinguish between words in a domain name? For example, if a domain name is, will search engines “separate” these words (Big Green Boat) and then give prominence towards keywords or as if treated as keywords?

Answer: Using keywords in both domain names and file names is one of the most hotly debated topics in search engine marketing. Some search engine marketers swear that by merely modifying domain names and file names, their pages’ search engine visibility increases considerably. Other search engine marketers, like myself, take a different approach.

Using keyword phrases in domain and file names

According to the pro side of this debate, a site will gain a considerable boost in search engine visibility by using keywords in both domain names and file names. I believe the main reason for this viewpoint is a type of search called the “inurl” search.

Let’s use Google as an example. If you wanted to search for a site that sold teas in the URL, in Google’s search box, type in the following:

inurl: teas

In the search results, you will see that only sites that contain the word “teas” in the URL will display. In order for the word “teas” to appear in these search results, it must be separated somehow. One way to separate it is to use hyphens in the domain name as shown in the domain name below:

Likewise, if there is a hyphen in the file name, the Web page can show up in the search results. For example:

Another way to separate the word “teas” in the URL is to create a subdirectory:

And, if you are one of those obsessive-compulsive optimizers, you can have a hyphenated domain name, subdirectories, and file names all containing targeted keyword phrases:

Subdomains can also separate keyword phrases in an inurl type of search.

So, to answer the reader’s question, the search engine bots will not separate the words out of They will separate the words out of in an inurl search.

The opposing viewpoint

I will just come out and say it so all of you know my position on this topic. I have been a featured speaker at search engine conferences worldwide for years. At these conferences, I speak directly to software engineers and other key personnel at the major search engines. Publicly, these personnel have stated that keywords in the URL have little or no importance in determining relevancy. So if a software engineer says it, I believe it to be true. And they have not changed their story for years.

One of the reasons, I believe, that keywords in the URL are of little importance is that it is so easy to be deceptive. As an extreme example, let’s use an adult site. Based on this strategy, an adult site should be able to create a URL structure that targets a popular children’s or teen’s keyword, such as The Little Mermaid.

Honestly, do you believe that a site like this is going to rank well for the keyword phrases “little mermaid” or “Disney little mermaid”? Probably not, because the main reasons that Web pages rank well are threefold:

(1) The actual Web pages contain keyword phrases that people are typing into a search query in the titles, anchor text, visible HTML text (paragraphs, headings, ordered lists, unordered lists, and so forth).

(2) Search engine bots can easily follow the URL structure and site navigation scheme.

(3) Pages have good popularity, which is the number and quality of links pointing to a Web page.

Other explanations keyword URLs rank well

One of the reasons that people believe that keyword-rich URLs rank well is that they see them at the top of SERPs (search engine results pages). The belief is that if a page ranks well, keywords in the URL must be important.

That reasoning is partially true. It is also equally possible that if a page ranks well, it might be ranking well due to other reasons, such as spam techniques.

Usually, when search engine marketers optimize a site, they do more than create keyword-rich URLs. They write keyword-rich title tags, meta tags, headings, anchor text, and so forth. They register sites in reputable directories, writing keyword-rich descriptions that are factual and accurate. They regularly build quality links to a site. Those are far more likely to be reasons that a page ranks well, rather than using keywords in a URL.

Besides, software engineers and other search engine representatives continually recommend tried-and-true methods of optimization at conferences and even on the search engine Web sites.

Interestingly enough, when the “pro” side uses the inurl search as evidence, I simply ask them, “When you view a client’s site statistics, how many searches are an inurl search, and how many sales conversions did your client get from the inurl search?”

Finally, do not rely on anecdotal evidence (this worked for me and it can work for you, too) as fact. To truly prove that a keyword-rich URL is the reason for a search engine visibility boost, two sites with identical content, identical link popularity, identical site navigation, etc. should be compared. The only difference between the two sites should be the URL structure. If the keyword-URL ranks better, that is good evidence. Then, an objective third party should be able to reproduce these same results, over and over again.

The chance that two sites are identical is highly unlikely. Google looks at the text in and around anchors (that is the text placed between the and tags) to determine relevancy. What is the likelihood that directories and industry-related sites are going to link to identical sites in the exact same way? Not likely at all.


I am not only a search engine marketer. I am also a web developer. When I name an HTML file or recommend a domain name to a client, I recommend a name that makes sense.

If a page is about software, I will name it software.html. If a page is about digital cameras, I will name the HTML file digitalcameras.html. I don’t place a hyphen in between keywords or create an extra subdirectory just to boost search engine visibility. I create URLs that are easy to type and easy to remember.

I have seen too many companies who are unwilling to modify their copywriting or site architecture to be more search engine friendly. These companies change their domain names to some ridiculous, multi-hyphenated one that is rather long and hard to type. And the results? Nothing.

So save your money and focus your efforts on the well-established, ethical methods of optimization: (a) using keyword-rich text in your copy, (b) creating a site navigation scheme and URL structure that the search engine bots can easily follow, and (c) develop high-quality links to your site.

Shari Thurow is Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc., a full-service search engine marketing, web and graphic design firm. This article is excerpted from her book, Search Engine Visibility ( published in January 2003 by New Riders Publishing Co. Shari can be reached at

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