Do You Use Underscores Or Dashes For SEO?

Posted on September 5, 2012

Should I use underscores or dashes in my website addresses? This popular SEO question is one that requires a bit of a technical background and some history lessons in the world of search engines.

Just for example's sake, let's say that you own a shoe company. You are building your website from scratch and are now determining how the pages within the site will be constructed and named. You have a page on your site dedicated exclusively to red running shoes. Should you name the page: or One version uses the underscore symbol while the other uses a dash. So how does Google and other search engines read this information?

The simple difference between the underscore and hyphen is that the underscore is a connector and the hyphen is a separator. In the red shoe example above, using an underscore mark, Google would index the exact phrase "red_running_shoes" together. Essentially, "red running shoes" is one super keyword in Google's mind. Using the same example, using a dash, Google indexes each word individually, "red," "running," and "shoes."

Going way back in time, Google was this bright young upstart with many technologically savvy individuals. Mostly serving as programmers, they needed to search pages for exact phrases within the code of the site. So they were conducting searches for "_MAXINT" or "TMP_MAX" and other programming specific information. Simply put, they were looking for exact information on a page and worked around that philosophy.

For search engines, you want to rank for multiple keywords. In the "red running shoes" example, using dashes, Google indexes each of the words individually and then puts them back together for search queries. Instead of ranking only for the exact phrase "red running shoes," Google will display your site for the search terms "running shoes" and "red shoes" in addition to the exact phrase "red running shoes." So not only does it display your website for the exact phrase, as is the case when using underscores, but it displays your site for combinations of your keywords, expanding your potential market and viewership.

So now that you know that dashes are preferrable to underscore marks, do you need to completely restructure your site? Not necessarily. Google has announced that the importance of underscores versus hyphens is a lower order metric in determining page rank. Wikipedia receives an estimated 2.7 billion page views every month from the U.S. alone using an underscore based naming convention, proving that you can rank well without the use of hyphens. Developing solid content, link building, and other search engine optimization programs are far more crucial than the hyphen versus underscore debate.

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