9 SEO Quirks You Should Be Aware Of

They say the devil is in the details. When it comes to search engine optimization, those details include some important quirks you need to know about. SEO Quirks You Need to Know

  • Conforming to search engine behavior
  • Keeping-up with changes in search engine behavior
  • Playing well with other websites to protect your SEO
  • Avoiding common practices that obstruct SEO

Here are nine examples of what I call SEO quirks. See how many you know about.

1. In Subfolder & File Names, Use Dashes, Not Underscores

  • Good: http://www.domain.com/sub-folder/file-name.htm
  • Bad: http://www.domain.com/sub_folder/file_name.htm

Many developers favor separating words in file names with underscores (_) instead of hyphens (-). They are conditioned to this behavior because some programming languages reserve the hyphen, for example, as the subtraction infix operator.

On the other hand, Google was written for nerds by nerds; the search engine tends to see underscores as concatenation, or joiners, so technical terms like FTP_BINARY will appear on search results pages.

  • If you are creating a new website, use hyphens.
  • If you have a small website without a lot of inboud links, change existing URLs to hyphens and 301 redirect old URLs to new URLs.
  • If you have an enterprise site that uses underscores, keep your old URLs and CMS rules, but switch from underscores to hyphens as the naming convention for all new file names.

A word of caution, keep the number of words and hyphens to a reasonable amount. On category name or topic level pages, I suggest short and sweet, one or two hyphens. When you create file names for articles, you have a lot more leeway; try not to go to town or stuff keywords.

2.  Avoid Dashes In Domain Names

Select a domain that is your brand or represents your business in a concise, professional manner without dashes. Do not worry about keywords. While I do not know of any technical reason not to use dashes in domain names, from a practical perspective, they look cheap and compromising. That may raise a caution flag when you reach out for links and citations.

One of the primary reasons people select hyphenated domains is to insert keywords. Last year Google updated its algorithms to dampen the exact match domain benefit. However, long before this, the success of numerous brand name domains, many verging on the ludicrous, proved you do not need a keyword rich domain to succeed.

3.  In Subfolder & File Names, Use Only Lower Case Letters, Numbers & Hyphens

Google and Bing are both terrific at handing complex URLS with spaces and non-standard or encoded characters. Where the problem lies is when other websites link to your documents. If you do not encode special characters, the content management systems of those websites that link to your documents may encode them.

For example, spaces become %20. If those websites use different character sets than what your site uses, they may not translate special characters correctly. The safest thing to do is keep it simple by using only a to z and 0 to 9 and hyphens.

According to the technical standard, URLs are case sensitive. Most content management systems handle mixed case addresses by rewriting them to lower case, but check yours and do not assume this.

Also, some analytics and SEO tools are case sensitive and will report different versions of the same URLs separately. The safest path is to make sure all your internal links are lower case and make lower case the style standard for all copywriters and coders.

4.  The Great Subfolders Vs. Subdomains Debate

It used to be that search engines treated subdomains somewhat like different websites. Today, they are roughly equivalent. In fact, it has been this way for some time. This is good because most third-party applications, like hosted shopping carts, must be in a subdomain.

Search engines are pretty proficient at telling whether subdomains are related or not. For example, Tumblr, Blogspot, and WordPress.com subdomains are not related, while www.domain.com and store.domain.com are related.

If you use subdomains, do not isolate them. Make certain the navigation links between your primary domain and subdomains are well integrated. I have seen applications inside subdomains that will only link to the primary website’s homepage or employ nofollow links.

5.  Be Careful With Parameters

Parameters are variables in URLs. The standard method for creating parameters is to end the address with a question mark, then list parameter names and values.

For example:


Your content management system may rewrite this into a user- and SEO-friendly format,


Both of the above URLs are fine. I prefer the second example as it is easy to read and removes unnecessary words and characters.

You definitely want to avoid missing or non-standard delimiters,

  • http://www.domain.com?nineball (no parameters)
  • http://www.domain.com,billiards,nineball (non-standard parameters)

I have seen some wacky delimiter schemes.

Be careful of user identification parameters like uid=142536 where each visitor gets a different number or tracking parameters like source=xyz where xyz is different for each referring document. These create duplicate content issues.

Your choices include:

  • get rid of them; use cookies instead
  • use the rel=”canonical” tag to tell search engines which URL to index and credit with links and citations
  • tell search engines to ignore the parameters using webmaster tools (Google, Bing)

Another trick is to put parameters that do not affect page content after a #. Search engines almost always ignore everything after the # character in URLs, the exception being the AJAX hash bang.

6. Use Flash Or Silverlight To Insert Multimedia Elements, Not For All Content

While search engines tout their ability to crawl Flash and other rich media, they still do a poor job of it. Flash is great for inserting multimedia — like a video, animation, presentation, or sound file — into an HTML page.

Do not use an all Flash or all Silverlight website. Flash sites are particularly popular among artists, musicians, and photographers, which is a shame because these are people who could benefit from organic search. Keep in mind, Apple’s iDevices do not support Flash, so its popularity is waning anyway.

7.  Pick Only One Per Page, HTTP: Or HTTPS:

Google does not care if you use http: or https: — not!

While Google welcomes both http: and https:, on a URL-by-URL basis, pick one and stick with it. Let us say you have a shopping cart with secure https: checkout. If your crawler-friendly catalog pages resolve to both http: and https: versions, you could be in for a world of trouble.

I have seen websites where all the offsite links go to http: addresses and Google indexes the http: URLS. Then, all of a sudden, the addresses in the Google index change to https: for no apparent reason, and the website’s rankings disappear.

The simplest way to avoid this is with canonical tags that force http: or https:, whichever is the version you want indexed.

8.  Make Sure The Markup & Visible Text Matches

When the text in HTML markup does not match what users see, search engines call it cloaking. Sometimes, cloaking is unintentional. One example I saw occurred in a shopping cart where all the links to all the product categories and subcategories were included in the markup of every page. Visitors only saw links to the subcategories of the category they were viewing. The content management system hid the other subcategory links via CSS.

I do not want to get into a debate about white hat vs. black hat cloaking here, especially since Google engineers seem loathe to discuss specific cloaking techniques. Probably because they do not want to give people ideas. The two exceptions, ones they use for demonstration purposes, are serving different content based on user agents and using CSS to position text off the screen (-999 pixels).

They are always quick to say there are no good reasons for cloaking and that they have special detection algorithms that ring the red alert phone. The bottom line for this quirks article is avoid unintentional cloaking.

9.  Using The Vertical Bar In Title Tags

Search for long winding road, long – winding road, long — winding road, and long | winding road. Notice how Google ignores the dashes but not the vertical bar? That bar separates long and winding, not just visually, but in the Google algorithm. If your website uses the vertical bar, experiment by replacing it with a dash and see what happens.

If you knew all nine of my SEO quirks, good for you. It is not easy to maintain a current, comprehensive knowledge of all things Google and Bing SEO. Do you have any SEO quirks of your own? Share them in the comments.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: operates Schmitz Marketing, an Internet Marketing consultancy helping brands succeed at Inbound Marketing, Social Media and SEO. You can read more from Tom at Hitchhiker's Guide to Traffic.

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  • https://twitter.com/olegko Oleg Korneitchouk

    I agree with you on points #1-#8. #4 is still a bit vague for me so I suggest folders/subdirectories to be on the safe side (when feasible). I believe #9 is incorrect.

    The “|” symbol is identical to “OR”

    Compare results for…

    So if anything, a dash is better to use since it is ignored.


  • http://twitter.com/mvanwagner Matt Van Wagner

    great list – well presented. Thank you!

  • Heidi Willbanks

    I didn’t know about the underscores. Thanks!

  • http://www.andreawrites.ca/ Andrea T

    #2 is an interesting one in this age of domain names. When you choose a company name or a domain name, it’s likely that both already exist. So, do you hyphen the domain name to match the business? Deliberately misspell? I know someone who dropped a letter in the spelling of her business name because the domain name that shared her company name wasn’t available – so the company name spelling now matches the available domain name instead of the other way around. When speaking to people she has to spell out the company name and URL. A radio ad had to do same. Wouldn’t a hyphen be easier? Living in Canada if I try a .com and it’s the wrong company, I try .ca second – or the other way around. Maybe if hyphens were accepted, that would be the natural second choice.

    There there’s .biz, .info etc., but I don’t like those. To me, THOSE “look cheap and compromising”.

    “[company name].com” is most intuitive and easiest for people to find.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Basic list, but always good to get back to basics. Nice article!

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Oleg, I think you made Tom’s point for him. You’re right that it’s viewed as the operator OR. So if you write stuff | nonsense, you’re creating a separation between “stuff” and “nonsense”, which would make you less likely to rank for “stuff and nonsense”. It’s all splitting hairs at this point, but technically Tom is correct.

    We use the pipe bar “|” to separate the main part of the title from the brand name. For example, our title tag might read “Stuff and Nonsense | Brand dot com”. That has always served us well.

  • http://twitter.com/victorpan victorpan

    These are all spot-on. 7 was the only thing that stood out to me, since I don’t work with https. Good stuff, and yes the dash principle applies to file names you upload to your website (e.g. image file names, pdf file names, you name it)

  • https://twitter.com/olegko Oleg Korneitchouk

    >It’s all splitting hairs at this point, but technically Tom is correct.
    It’s totally splitting hairs and I don’t believe there is a difference at all. But I am quite confident that it won’t help you to use | (vbar) over – (dash) based on his argument.

    >Notice how Google ignores the dashes but not the vertical bar?
    That’s because | is a search operator and a standalone dash is not.

    >That bar separates long and winding, not just visually, but in the Google
    I’ve done some test searched for “Bose headphones” (vbar separator), “Amazon headphones” (colon separator) and “best buy headphones” (dash separator) and they all function the same way. Algorithmically, it seems they are all treated equally.

    >If your website uses the vertical bar, experiment by replacing it with a dash and see what happens.
    This would be neat. Doubt there will be any conclusive results though.

  • G Dude

    regarding #2: This does not seem to apply to all countries. In many other countries (i.e. Germany) having a dash in the domain name is common and often preferred. If your company names was Red Widgets then you would try to register Red-Widgets.de …

    Here is an actual example: deutsche-bank.de

  • http://twitter.com/w00t John Vantine

    I figured this would be a pretty standard list, but was caught off guard by number 9 – I never knew that Google handled pipes differently. This definitely changes the way that I approach title tags moving forward. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://twitter.com/iAbhishekMishra Abhishek Mishra

    Excellent Post Tom… & I really appreciate your way of explanation

  • http://www.ezmaal.com/ hyderali

    Hey Tom,

    I didn’t understand your point #7. You say we should use either HTTP or HTTPs throughout our site. But on ecommerce site we normally redirect HTTP to HTTPs when the user starts adding the product to the cart. Do you suggest we should remove it?

    Then, how user would feel secure if we don’t keep check out pages secure :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=614256468 Robin O’List

    Excellent post, I was aware of 7 out of nine, but interesting to learn about #2 and #9. While one cant do much about existing domain names (apart from registering a new name and running 301s), I will be sure to run tests with the vertical bar.

    Thanks for sharing

  • Dennis, ListsUK

    Some good points & reminders, Tom – thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/prageethjan Prageeth Jan

    Clean write up. Great work man..

  • http://www.facebook.com/reeju.dahare Reeju Dahare

    Excellent post thanks!!!

  • http://www.adamtudor.com/ tudoradam

    I’s always vote for subfolders for content where you can, and subdomains for different entities, such as shopping stores or checkout processes. Always try to keep all rich content and value on one domain as much as possible and keep things centralised.

  • Arne van Elk

    I didn’t understand quirk no. 9, so I thank Oleg for commenting on it.

    You cannot compare search operators with text written in meta tags, and I don’t see any correlation. As a search operator, the vertical bar stands for “OR”. So in the examples Tom gave, you’re searching for ‘Long’ OR ‘winding road’. Yes, that’ll give you different results from ‘long winding road’ or ‘long – winding road’. As a search operator, a dash (or hyphen?) only means something when it’s directly attached to a word (in that case it means ‘NOT’). Just try searching for ‘long -winding road’. If it’s not attached to a word it will be ignored (although you might see tiny changes in result order).

    When you use a vertical bar or a dash in the text on a page (or in meta tags) this is something completely different. This is why I don’t really understand what Tom is referring to. Otherwise I enjoyed the article!
    Oh, and I will continue to use the vertical bar in title tags – at least for now :-)

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    I once had a client that, when they updated their CMS, they changed their URL structure from all lowercase to some uppercase letters in the URLs. That’s fine, except for that they didn’t properly redirect all of the URLs to one or the other so half the website was upper, half was lower and in some cases both versions existed AND where being indexed. Logistically pain in the butt to fix.

  • http://about.me/mohammedalami Meding44

    Usually clients are aware about uppercase, dashes and stuff like that, but they ignore the importance of parameters handling. Canonical will not sort all out

  • Rob James

    I have read an article that suggested there is evidence that google does penalise for having hyphens in your domain name :


  • James

    Matt’s video gives mixed messages. He says to use dashes if you are building a new site, but if you have an existing site with underscores, “don’t worry too much”.

    Well, my site uses underscores. Should I worry or not?!

    It will be very easy for me to rewrite the URLs and replace the underscores with dashes, and 301 redirect the underscore URLs to the new format. Would that be damaging?

    Any comments?

  • http://twitter.com/dereferencement Déréférencement

    Thank you for this eye-opening experiment. The dash doesn’t act as a stop word in the title tag, as you can see if you simply research “gabon free”. Wikipedia takes the first 16 places. “Free” is definitely taken into account [https://www.google.com/?hl=en#hl=en&tbo=d&sclient=psy-ab&q=gabon+free&oq=gabon+free]

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    Jenny, I too do “Stuff and Nonsense | Brand dot com.” If I am doing breadcrumb style title I do “Stuff – Particles – Quarks | Brand.”

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    My opinion (and this is a matter of opinion) is that you leave it. While the 301 redirect will work, it may cause a slight dip in performance while the search engines catch up to it, and there’s a Matt video somewhere where he says a 301 causes you to lose “a tiny bit of PageRank”. So, again IMO, I think the tiny loss of PR would likely offset the tiny gain of changing to dashes. You might as well build new pages with dashes though, when possible. :)

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Depends on the length of the domain name and number of dashes, from what I understand. I have a domain name with a single dash and have never seen any adverse reaction to it.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    I’m dealing with this right now with a client… if you have any advice or sources for upper/lower consistency without using httpd.conf, I’d love to talk to you about it!

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    It’s an interesting debate to be sure. I often find that what is true technically may not bear that out in testing. So if anyone tests this, I’d love to see the results!

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Ah-ha. Found the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zW5UL3lzBOA
    It’s in the first 30 seconds.

  • James

    Thank you for the information and your opinion. I tend to agree with you, and make new pages with dashes. That is probably safest, BUT I have a lingering thought that any loss in PageRank might be offset by the better URL format.

    Perhaps I will change a handful of URLs and see if those pages increase or decrease in the SERPS.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    If you find something conclusive, let me know!

  • http://twitter.com/Eric_Rudolphe Eric Rudolphe

    #1 certainly was a new one to me. This is certainly going on my “what SEO trick” did I learn today.

  • http://twitter.com/bigorangeplanet Big Orange Planet

    I too am intrigued by #9 here- never even considered this.
    Will give it a try for a few days and see what happens- why not?

  • Sojib Rahman

    So what are you think about hyphen and Vertical bar in title is best? I’m always using Vertical bar and it’s seems a good result. What about you?

  • http://lucrazon.com/blog Alice Ly | Lucrazon Ecommerce

    We use the vertical bar to separate brand name from the rest. It’s worked fine for us.


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