The debate surrounding URL structure within the SEO industry has been around for some time now. The bone of contention has been whether to use dashes or underscores. We did a bit of research to help you make an informed decision. Keep on reading to learn more!
URLs are vital for SEO because, in addition to your website content, such as titles, meta descriptions, and headings, search engines use URLs to determine the content of your page and how it should rank.
While the relevance of URLs for ranking has shifted over time, Google's John Mueller has stated that you should construct your URLs with your users in mind.
There is also a section in Google's SEO Starter guide dedicated to understanding URLs and how they are used in search.
It is critical to realize that URLs are used to identify material rather than index it. As a result, it has the greatest impact on user experience and boosted click-through rates.
It's easy to see why, given Google's increasing emphasis on user experience.
One of the reasons this subject is so contentious is due to a poorly worded comment made by Google's Matt Cutts in 2007 that seemed to imply that underscores were considered as word separators to many people.
Matt promptly rectified this idea on his blog, but the misconception lingered. Later in 2009, Matt reiterated that you should still use hyphens for your SEO URLs because Google does not treat underscores as word separators, and he suggested using hyphens again in 2010.
In August of 2011, Google's Matt Cutts released a video reaffirming unambiguously that hyphens are the way to go for SEO URLs and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Here are a number of quotes from Matt Cutts' 2011 video:
“If you are going to make a site and you’re starting fresh, so you’ve got a blank slate to work with, I would probably go ahead and go with dashes. I would continue to go with dashes at lease for the foreseeable future.”
“Nobody’s slated to be working on that so at least for the time being it’s better to use the dash.”
Here's Matt's August video response to the hyphen vs underscore SEO URL debate:
It's worth noting that if your site is currently utilizing underscores instead of dashes, changing them is probably not worth the hassle (after all, 301 redirects don't pass 100% of the link juice). Matt Cutts emphasized that the ranking difference between dashes and underscores is modest — but there is a ranking difference.
URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator, a unique address of a given resource on the web. URLs replace IP addresses, are human-readable texts, and are stored by DNS (Domain Name System) in its database. When you key in a URL into a search bar, a request is created to the DNS server to find the IP address of the URL you are searching for.
You can find the URL link in the address bar of your web browser. You can also find the URL for a link by right-clicking it and copying the link.
The hyphen (-) is a punctuation mark that pair two words or join two parts of words together. However, it is good to note a hyphen is not to be interchangeably with a dash.
The en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. The en dash is most commonly used to write dates and to represent numerical ranges. When a writer is creating complex compound adjectives, the en dash might be employed to bring clarification to the reader.
The em dash is the longest dash and can be used to replace commas, quote marks, question marks, or parentheses in a text. It can also be used to indicate a break in a sentence.
Also commonly known as a low dash, underline, low line, or under dash, an underscore (_) looks like an elongated hyphen. It is found on the same keyboard key as the hyphen.
Note that it is recommended to keep the use of underscores strictly to subfolders or filenames.
Having a great URL structure for SEO is very crucial, and something you need to take very seriously. But how do you make sure the structure is right. Here are some tried and tested ways of using URLs wisely.
Sticking to the accepted norm is very crucial when it comes to URL optimization and structure. For example, when including categories and subcategories in URL, avoid taking things to far. See the examples below:
www.examplesite.com/womens/dresses is an intuitive URL structure, while www.examplesite.com/womens/dresses/short-sleeves/floral/knee-length/nameofthespecificdress is taking things too far.
Note! Remember to be consistent as possible in the URL structure you use across the site and to include the main categories as they make your site more intuitive in its organization.
Surprisingly there are still websites that still use automatically generated URLs that look gibberish. Such URLs are not suitable for SEO and create a more confusing experience for visitors. To avoid all these, commit to customizing each URL based on what is on the web page.
Avoid including unnecessary words in your URL. Just keep it short, simple, consistent, and to the point. For example, avoid having the same keyword in your URL.
It will be impossible to keep your URL short and simple if you include stop words like or, the, a, of, but, etc. So, drop them.
Primary keywords are the target keywords you want to rank. This means you must have these keywords in mind. They are keywords that describe what is on the web page and include those terms commonly used (likely to be used) by people searching for what is on the page. A primary keyword must be part of the page’s URL. See the example below:
Consider a post called ”10 best burr coffee grinder” published on a webpage for blog posts. If the target keyword is “burr coffee grinder”, the URL could be:
The best SEO practice is to include a hyphen to separate two or multiple words. Hyphens allow Google to index all terms/keywords individually. We will get into detail about using hyphens in URLs in a jiffy.
You don’t want search engines to register different versions of the same page on your website as distinct pages. So if you have the same web page tied to more than one URL for any reason, you are hurting its SEO value. See the example below:
Consolidating each URL for the same page in the eyes of Google so that a link back to one of them counts for all versions is the right way to solve this issue. You can help Google understand that by using the canonical tag on every variation of the page that clarifies which URL represents all versions.
Google recommends using hyphens as a word separator instead of underscore in URLs. Hyphens help Google to figure out what your pages are all about and create consistent results. Underscores in your URLs will not be recognized. For example, the phrase “learn_seo-for beginners” would be interpreted as “learnseoforbeginners” instead of “learn SEO for beginners.”
“Learn SEO for beginners” is more legible to Google’s robots. This legibility, in turn, can help Google’s robots return results for a range of words and phrases combination such as:
- how to learn seo
- seo for beginners
- learn seo online free step by step
- seo 101
- search engine optimization tutorial
- seo course
- search engine optimization techniques
In a nutshell, the easier it is for Google to read and interpret your URLs, the more your site will appear to relevant search queries. Additionally, the easier your URL is to read for humans, the better your website is going to place on search engines. And that is a huge plus in your SEO effort.
Punctuations in URLs only aid search engine robots to read and interpret URLs when indexing. They are not ranking signals. That means if you are currently using underscores in URLs and still getting the results you want, there is no need to remove or change. In fact, if you change, that could cause a short-term ranking loss because Google will have to recrawl, reindex, and interpret the new URL structure.
Still not convinced?
Then look at how Wikipedia uses underscores in all of its URLs and still dominates SERPs for information searches. For example, check out the page for The Best FIFA Men's Player. You will note the page’s URL is “The_Best_FIFA_Men’s_Player”, not “The-Best-FIFA-Men's-Player.”
If you are using underscores in your URLs and not seeing the results you want, it is ok to use the 301 redirect to move to the new URL structure (the one using hyphens). The 301 redirect sends all crawlers and humans to the new URL.
Note that once you move to a structure using hyphens, it will take Google some time to crawl and index the new URLs. So, if not struggling to perform well in search results, stick with underscores as you may lose the linking networks you have built that are working well for you.
While it may look fancy to include dashes or even hyphen in domain names, it is not recommended as some people may have a difficult time recalling your domain name. Imagine trying to remember punctuation you saw in a domain name! That is tedious, right? Now imagine people searching for your website trying to recall a dash or hyphen in your domain name. Chances are, they will not find you and will visit other sites.
Additionally, dashes and hyphens make it challenging to advertise by word-of-mouth or across radios. So, to maintain audience retention, it is best to refrain using these two punctuation marks in your domain names.
Bonus! Underscores can’t be used in domain names, as the underscore symbol is not allowed.
- Use a robots.txt file to block Google bot's access to problematic URLs: You should focus on blocking dynamic URLs, such as URLs that can create infinite spaces or URLs that generate search results. Using common expressions in your robots.txt file can allow you to easily block large numbers of URLs.
- Check your site for broken relative links.
- Shorten URLs: Consider trimming any unnecessary parameters from your URLs.