Hyphens vs Underscores

Hyphens vs Underscores! 

It sounds like the title of a B-grade Horror/Action film, like Boa Vs Python

You Must Use Hyphens! Because SEO

Ask someone in Marketing or Web Design and they'd most likely tell you 'You Must Use Hyphens! because SEO' (Search Engine Optimization).

It sounds important, so I looked for some information on what the impact in terms of hits or other metrics. I couldn't find any. I wondered how people could be so certain without any information.I decided to dig a bit deeper and found numerous references that said the impact of an underscore rather than a hyphen was not significant.

Why would so many people believe it's absolutely necessary when so many sources say it isn't significant? A number articles said 'it's better' or 'it looks nicer' but little in the way of fact or useful information. Still, the belief that 'You Must Use Hyphens! Because SEO' seems hard to shake.

But, Matt Cutts said!
 That's Why!

A few articles and blogs argued that there was a difference in the way Google treated hyphens and underscores. Matt Cutts's 2005 blog post Dashes vs Underscores the most common source for this argument.

2005. That was 11 years ago. On the internet. In people years, that's 110 years old.

Who is Matt Cutts? Why is he a source? According to the Wall Street Journal, Matt Cutts "is to search results what Alan Greenspan was to interest rates'. 

He worked for Google from 2000 - 2014 and was their spokesperson for Searching and SEO. Matt ran his own blog and did videos on YouTube.

Matt left Google in 2014. Google doesn't have a new spokesperson.

The most current reference I could find from Matt was in 2011 where he said '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.'

What about Now?

What about more current sources? Most agree that hyphens or underscores are the best punctuation to use in URLs. Google's support article on SEO discusses the use logical structures with words or phrases, with punctuation in general. Hyphens themselves only barely get a mention, only one line stating it's a recommendation.

In the article 15 SEO Best Practices for Structuring URLs by Moz said 'In the last few years, the search engines have successfully overcome their previous challenges with this issue and now treat underscores and hyphens similarly' and in SEO 101: Hyphens vs. Underscores in URLs SEO Mechanic said 'Overall, one does not adversely rank better than the other. Wikipedia, for instance, uses underscores on all of their pages.'

Wikipedia.org does use underscores in all their URLs, and are regularly the first entry on a Google search. Mark Hetherington, a Wikipedia admin, said: 'it seems a bit naive to blindly assume that their recommendation is ideal without looking at their rationale'

Reserved Characters

Different file formats will often have 'Reserved Characters'. These are characters you aren't allowed to use (or have to use in special ways) in that file format.

You've probably seen this yourself when you tried to use a Comma Separated Values (CSV) file to import data. In a CSV, the comma (,) is a special reserved character which designates the end of a column or field. One comma in the wrong place it can make the whole import fail.

URLs (the text at the top of your browser that identifies the page you are going to) also have special reserved characters. You can't use colons (:) or spaces ( ). Some characters like a backslash (/) have special meaning. In onCourse we also prevent you using hyphen (-) in a course name because we use that character to separate the course code an the class code like ABC-123.

This means that some URLs in onCourse must use a underscore, because a hyphen can't be used. Tags and other pages can use hyphens for the URL, but the pages that are directly related to the course codes cannot.

Improving your SEO with onCourse

SEO is important to any business with a web presence. Naming your URLs is part of SEO, but it isn't the main or defining factor. Google's support article and the journal articles linked below good information on how to improve your SEO, and our entry in the User Manual, What is SEO and why is it important?

onCourse is built with SEO needs in mind and will automatically provide a consistent and logical name structure, as well as use words or phrases as the URL address if those are used as your Course names.

SEO builds on individual URLs. onCourse takes advantage of that by using the Course for the URL, rather than the class. This means the classes can be added and removed without editing the page or needing to create a new URL. Over time your Course URL will build SEO and link to the current classes, without having to edit a web page every time you create a class.

Still, the most overlooked aspect of SEO is the most obvious. Content is the best way to drive your SEO, and often overlooked in favour of the technical aspect. Good copy and searchable details, such as locations and dates, make the biggest difference. There's millions of possible search combinations, and ensuring that you have current content is the best way to draw more traffic.

Searching for ways to beat the Google Algorithm isn't as necessary when there is good copy on the website.

onCourse supports you in creating copy by integrating the marketing in the course creation in the database. Update the copy in the database and your website will be updated. You can add new courses, classes, and content, from the database, without and skills in web development. Integration of your website and database allows you to focus on the content and make it as engaging and current as possible. More information on how onCourse support your copy is Writing course descriptions for the web

Links for SEO articles