SEO 101: Dashes or Underscores?

// // April 23rd 2009 // SEO

One of the first things someone new to search engine optimization (SEO) will ask is whether it's better to use dashes or underscores in URLs.

dashes or underscores

Dashes or Underscores?

The short answer is: dashes.

Read on if you're interested in why and some history behind the topic.

Back in 2005, Matt Cutts wrote about dashes versus underscores. At that time he recommended dashes.

... if you have a url like word1_word2, Google will only return that page if the user searches for word1_word2 (which almost never happens). If you have a url like word1-word2, that page can be returned for the searches word1, word2, and even “word1 word2″. That’s why I would always choose dashes instead of underscores.

To make it even more plain, the underscore joins the words together while the dash separates the words.

this_is_one_word

this-is-multiple-words

At WordCamp 2007 Cutts was reported to say that Google was going to begin treating underscores as separators. But Cutts clarified what he said in a follow-up blog post.

... I didn’t quite say that in the talk. I said that we had someone looking at that now. So I wouldn’t consider it a completely done deal at this point. But note that I also said if you’d already made your site with underscores, it probably wasn’t worth trying to migrate all your urls over to dashes. If you’re starting fresh, I’d still pick dashes.

This made it seem like Google might be working on a solution to the underscore issue which impacted a number of blogging platforms and other developers who use underscores out of habit.

The WordCamp talk clouded the topic and confused many. Some, despite the clarification, thought dashes and underscores were interchangeable. Others figured the fix was right around the corner, so it was safe to begin using dashes and underscores interchangeably. They were wrong.

At SMX West 2009 I sat in on two sessions in which the dashes versus underscores topic, yet again, surfaced. In both instances the panel unanimously recommended dashes. In fact, Maile Ohye's presentation in the Technical SEO session included a slide in which the dash or hyphen was a recommended best practice.

Stephan Spencer got it straight from the horse's mouth.

When I spoke to Matt in February at SMX West, he confirmed that underscores were NOT treated as word separators. According to Matt, this change is still in their queue but unlikely to happen before summer. My interpretation: don't hold your breath, it's between summer and never.

I concur with Stephan on this one, in part because I think Google has better and more interesting projects in the queue.

In the meantime ...

Use dashes.

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Comments About SEO 101: Dashes or Underscores?

// 4 comments so far.

  1. Dror Zaifman // April 23rd 2009

    I tend to use dashes as well as I noticed that is what Google uses on their blogger service when someone puts up a blog with multiple words.
    The resulting link is something like this

    name of blog within blogger/year it was published/month it was published/e-commerce-website-101.html
    Until I see Google changes I am sticking to what they use in their architecture.

  2. Robert // April 23rd 2009

    Well I’m a fan of dashes… because it’s easier to read, if the underscore is a link (as many URL’s become) then it’s difficult to see what is an underscore, space or link. But I do believe that Google have done a great job with word stemming so it shouldn’t make too much of a difference at this time.

    But for so many reasons I’ll agree… USE DASHES!!

  3. Buffalo SEO // April 24th 2009

    Dashes all the way. Consider underscores to create a visual for people browsing the search results without adding weight to the words in the URL.

  4. Randall // August 18th 2009

    So what about the total number of dashes in a URL. I’ve heard that having 5 or more dashes in the URL is bad for SEO. Anyone have any information about this?

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