Google & Bing (Still) Handle Underscores & Dashes Differently

google-bing-logosIt’s one of the longest-running SEO questions around, and still something many of us get asked by clients, readers, conference attendees and so forth:

Should we use dashes or underscores in our URLs?

Google re-opened the discussion recently with a new YouTube video that highlights how Google currently handles dashes and underscores, and also reminds us that Google and Bing differ on this bit of SEO minutiae.

Many of you will recall this was a pretty hot topic a few years ago when Google originally announced that both dashes and underscores both served as separators, and then backtracked on that statement about a week later, saying it “wasn’t a done deal yet.”

As the new video explains, it’s still not a done deal … and may never be. Google’s Matt Cutts says there’s still a difference between how Google treats underscores in URLs versus how it treats dashes.

In the video, Cutts explains that, when Google sees an underscore in a URL, it joins what’s before and after into one term. “We still join on the underscore and separate on the dash,” he says.

Perhaps most importantly from an SEO perspective, though, Cutts cautions webmasters against rewriting all of their existing URLs just to have dashes rather than underscores because the actual ranking impact is minimal:

It doesn’t make that much difference. It’s what we call a second-order effect. It’s not a primary thing that makes a huge difference.

And that can be considered a best practice, at least where Google is concerned, for the foreseeable future. In the video, Cutts says Google doesn’t have any employees working on changing how it handles underscores and dashes in URLs.

What About Bing & Underscores/Dashes?

In short: It makes no difference to Bing whether you use underscores or dashes in your URLs. A Bing spokesperson confirmed this for us via email today:

We do not differentiate between dash and underscore in our URL ranking features.

That’s the same response we got from Microsoft back in 2007, when Bing was known as Live Search.

So, What Should Webmasters Do?

The same advice that has applied for years still applies today: If you’re just starting on a new website, use dashes if you plan to place keywords in your URLs. Those keywords might provide a minor signal of what the page is about and help a wee bit with rankings. But if you have an existing website that’s already doing well in Google and Bing — pages are indexed, you’re getting quality natural search traffic, etc. — don’t switch from underscore-based URLs to dashes. The potential problems from changing URLs might be worse than the potential gains from having dashes rather than underscores in your URLs.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Microsoft: Bing SEO | SEO: Domain Names & URLs

Sponsored


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



SearchCap:

Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  

Share

Other ways to share:
 

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • http://www.pagerank-seo.com Robert Visser

    Thx for including the statement on how Bing values underscores vs. hyphens in URLs. It balances Matt Cutts’ statement in the Google Webmasters Central video.

    Part of this is to understand how the Google algorithm interprets punctuation, in this instance underscores and hyphens. From what Cutts disclosed in the video, Google sees a hyphen as a space whereas an underscore is discarded to create a compound noun.

    Not covered and beyond the immediate scope of the video is how the algorithm interprets punctuation in dynamic URLs including the ‘+’ and ‘%20′ characters.

    What’s not mentioned is, of course, how people conduct queries. To use the examples in the video it’s highly unlikely anyone would actually query a long tail keyword phrase, ‘war of 1812′, as a compound noun, i.e. warof1812. So the value the Google algorithm attributes to having keywords in the domain would be diminished if the domain was http://www.war_of_1812.com rather than http://www.war-of-1812.com.

    To be fair the ‘war of 1812′ example is itself over simplified; ‘of’ is a stop word would not be valued unless the query was conducted with the long tail keyword phrase inside quotation marks, i.e. “war of 1812″. Historically, quotes signify the query is to return the exact long tail keyword phrase in the order it was entered. While I believe this method does retain some value, recent changes have influenced how the Google algorithm sees search terms. For instance, the algorithm can now recognize some common occurrences of how a search term is queried. If one queries ‘realtime’ the results appear to be unchanged from a query for ‘real time’, while a query for “real time” (with quotation marks) will render different SERPs.

    Another variable — assuming one is logged-in — is how the algorithm interprets user intent & attributes value based on personalized search.

    When choosing a URL, naming folders, or naming files, the greatest value will be realized by implementing a naming convention with long tail keyword phrases which reiterates the manner in which those long tail phrases are queried. The best reference, of course, is the keyword logs in one’s web analytics app. To use an ecommerce example, assuming one has created advanced segments, the long tail keyword phrases with the greatest values are those queries from which a gaol was realized. If a [completed] purchase originate from a query, it’s the keywords which brought the buyer to the funnel.

  • http://www.seo-suedwest.de/english-blog.html Christian

    Dashes can take quite different effects in Google: On the one hand side they are a useful way to seperate multiple terms in order to get them indexed properly. On the other hand too many dashes – especially used in URLs – seem to be suspicious to Google and can result in a worse ranking. So one has to be careful and think about it before using.

  • http://www.seocatalysts.com/ I.M.

    Dashes can useful to describe about the page in short..and that is a really effective way to promote your pages with proper naming convention

  • MarkWarner

    I am pushing the following comment: (but not spamming it)

    Could I suggest that you add an option in webmaster tools \split on underscore\. By default this is off. So if you are one of the idiot \underscore\ webmasters like me you can opt in.

    This should then mean that the project to split is really a lot simpler to implement in respect of checking for webwide impact etc.

    You’ll be producing better quality results!

    Smart idea eh?

    Regards,

    Mark

  • Razibul Hassan

    For an existing website with a good ranking the fact can be ignored for now. But if you are going to create a new website then you should definitely put the matter in consideration. Simply place underscore for closely connected search term phrases that you can treat as a single phrase or key word . But for the a long URL with different keywords placed together the dash(-) is the appropriate one.

    Thanks for the great post.

Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest

 
 

Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States

Europe

Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech


Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!

 


 

Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide