What your domain should include or not include has been an ongoing discussion among brands, webmasters and marketers. Should a domain include special characters like hyphens or underscores? Does having special characters negatively impact my SEO? All these questions have been asked over and over and different schools of thought exist to try and settle the matter.
In this article, we look at whether hyphens should be used in domain names, taking into consideration the different sentiments. We also discuss whether they have any effect on your site’s SEO. We will then come to a fact-based conclusion on their use or lack thereof.
The pro-hyphen use school of thought
This school of thought argues that hyphens should be used as part of domain names. Here are the reasons why:
- They help make domain names readable - using hyphens makes easier for both people and search engines to read your domain name, therefore, get a clue about what the site or business is all about. Search engines see hyphens as separators and can help to clarify what a web page's subject matter is. An example is when a search engine may misunderstand a domain name as it ‘split’ it in the wrong place. Here are some examples where this may be necessary:
- They allow you to distinguish between geographic locations - you can use hyphens to separate the location name from the rest of the domain.
The anti-hyphen use school of thought
Here are the arguments brought to the fore by people in this school of thought:
- Using hyphens makes domain names seem untrustworthy and less credible.
- Hyphenated domains are difficult to remember and talk about. When a user is told about your business or domain name by a friend, for example, the friend will have to belabor the point that the domain name includes hyphens. The recipient is highly likely to forget to use the hyphens when entering your domain name.
- They reflect a brand as incompetent.
- If a user misses even a single hyphen when typing your brand name, they are highly likely to end up on your competitor’s site or web page.
Putting the two schools to the test: do hyphens impact SEO?
After looking at each of the sides, we decided to put each of their ideas to the test. Here are the SEO facts and arguments that we used to agree with or disprove the propositions brought forward:
- Search engines are able to parse words even when they are not hyphenated. Even in cases where parsing is inaccurate, the bots are able to pick the site’s or page’s subject matter from other SEO aspects like the meta description, title tag, the keywords used, and even the content itself.
- Using hyphens may negatively affect your brand’s credibility and authority as it may pass as a spam link. Authenticity and authority are important points for Google when ranking webpages and sites. If your domain risks your brand being seen as spammy, then it could see your site’s rank decrease significantly.
- Using hyphens does not guarantee that your users will take their time to type them in search engine queries. They are highly likely not to use them at all. Remember, users want to access information fast and they will definitely not want to remember to have to put hyphens in your domain name.
- Using hyphens could easily result in your users landing on a competitor’s page or site. This will not help your brand, especially if the reason you opted for the hyphenated version was that the non-hyphenated one had already been taken. You end up losing your traffic and maybe customers to your competition.
- Google simply prefers non-hyphenated versions. In a study where different domain names were used to check which ones would rank better, it was concluded that keyword-rich domains would outdo domains that did not use keywords and those that were hyphenated.
- You may run into legal and trademark issues when using hyphens, and especially if you used them after a non-hyphenated domain had already been registered and was already in use. You may be sued for intellectual property violation.
Using hyphens should be avoided at all costs. As much as they do not directly affect SEO, you need to have a credible brand. Using hyphens makes your brand look spammy and this makes users have a negative brand perception.
Negative brand perception will result in high bounce rates as many people will begin to leave your site within a very short time. This sends signals to search engines that your site is low quality. This could see your site’s rank decrease significantly.
Negative brand perception will make it difficult for your site to get backlinks too. Backlinks are an important ranking factor for your site as they are a vote from other sites that your site is authoritative and has high-quality content. Once other webmasters note that your site looks spammy, they will not link to it. A site with no backlinks will be seen as low quality by Google.
There are times when using hyphens is necessary, for example, if your actual brand name contains it. It will help your brand to stay consistent.
An example here is Chick-fil-A:
Their domain is hyphenated, just like their brand name is.
Mercedez Benz also decided to use the hyphen for their domain:
Last but not least:
One of the deprecated ranking factors was exact match domains (where your brand name or main target keyword and domain name had to match). As Google’s algorithms got smarter, it did not matter anymore.
If you need to use a hyphen in your domain name (for example best-chef.com), make sure that you purchase the non-hyphenated version (bestchef.com) and redirect it to your hyphenated version. That way, you will not risk someone else buying the non-hyphenated ones and having your traffic being redirected to their site.
When using hyphens, don’t make things worse by using double hyphens, or using a hyphen as a prefix or suffix to your domain name. Having more than one hyphen too will make it difficult for your users to remember as in www.female-body-building.com. This does not by any chance make your domain unique. It is hard enough for users to try and remember one hyphen.
A note about domains and sub-pages
While we have come to the conclusion that hyphens need to be avoided, it is important to note that this only applies to domains. Hyphens can and should be used for pages and folders of the website.
Domains vs sub-pages
The last part of a domain name is what is referred to as a Top-level domain (TLD) (as in .com in www.abc.com). It is also known as a domain name extension. Some common TLDs include .gov, .edu, .biz, .com, .net, .org, with .com leading the rest in popularity. The TLD is the most vital part of the domain name. Learn more about top-level domains here.
A sub-page or sub-folder is basically what comes after the TLD. You usually see it after clicking a specific link on a site, for example, another page as in www.abc.com/blog. In this case, ‘blog’ is the sub-page.
It is okay to use hyphens in second-level domains. This link is a blog post on our site:
As you can see, hyphens have been used after the slash after the second-level domain. We could look at it as an expansion of the second-level domain.
It would be weird if the second-level domain was:
as it would be difficult to read.
A lot more thought needs to go into choosing domain names. It is a part of your brand that will stay with you for a long time. You, therefore, need to ensure that your domain adds to your brand’s credibility. Go for a short, simple, catchy and easy to remember domain name. Only use hyphens if you must.