It’s easy to overlook the structure of URLs for SEO matters when building a site. To many, headings, titles, and other elements seem more important when it comes to receiving the highest ranking possible for relevant search queries.
One debate that has been raging for over a decade at this point is whether you should use dashes or underscores in your URLs as word separators. Are dashes bad to have in URLs in 2022, or should you use them freely?
More commonly known as a “web address,” your Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is the mechanism through which browsers can retrieve published web resources.
While your URL might not be the first thing you think about when you’re trying to boost your SEO, it is essential to SEO for three primary reasons.
While it’s true that URLs are not the biggest ranking factor when search engines are trying to figure out whether a page is relevant to a search query, they are considered a minor ranking factor.
Using keywords in your URL can marginally help to improve the visibility of your site in search results.
Your URL doesn’t just help search engines understand what type of resources they’ll be able to find on your site’s page– it also lets your human visitors know what to expect.
This can give your audience a clear idea of what is on the destination page, which provides for a better user experience.
Lastly, URLs some sites leave shared links unformatted, which means that poorly crafted URLs can look chaotic and unwieldy. This can actually deter your readers rather than attract them to click. When your URLs are well-written, on the other hand, they can end up serving as their own anchor text.
Before we get too deep into things, let’s do a quick refresher.
Underscores are common in computer programming instead of spaces and are also frequently used in file names and email addresses.
This is the key you’d use if you were subtracting one number from another on a calculator or indicating that a number is negative rather than positive. The hyphen is also frequently used in computer programming and is a common grammatical symbol used to clarify words used together and make compound words easier to read.
When it comes to making queries in search engines, the dash serves as a boolean operator that communicates with the search engine to not include results related to the word directly after the dash.
Dashes are also the go-to word separators when creating URLs. While underscores won’t be recognized, hyphens are understood to separate words by search engines.
The debate over dashes and underscores in URLs has been contentious for quite some time. One of the reasons for the long history of this seemingly innocuous topic is a comment made in 2007 by Google’s Matt Cutts.
Basically, he implied that underscores in URLs would soon be treated as word separators. Even though he had previously stated that he would recommend dashes over underscores in URLs and quickly corrected the record to say that Google was not yet treating underscores as word separators, the damage was already done.
Cutts reiterated that people should use dashes in their URLs in 2009 and again in 2010. In 2011, he released a video to state one more time that dashes are the right choice when writing SEO URLs.
“If you are going to make a site and you’re starting fresh, so you’ve got a blank slate to work with, I would probably go ahead and go with dashes. I would continue to go with dashes, at least for the foreseeable future.”
He did, however, state that changing your URLs from underscores to dashes probably isn’t worth it if your site is already using underscores. While there is a ranking difference between dashes and underscores, it is only a modest difference.
Google recommends that the URL structure of a site should be “as simple as possible” and constructed in a way that makes sense to humans. They also recommend using hyphens to separate the words that make up your URL because it is helpful to both search engines and users and explicitly states that you should do so instead of underscores.
If your site already utilizes underscores in its URLs, it’s probably best to leave it the way it is. After all, you are potentially risking link equity and other issues for what would likely only be a small long-term benefit at best.
No, dashes (otherwise known as hyphens) aren’t bad to have in URLs in 2022. After all, this is what Google recommends you do to separate words for the benefit of both search engines and users.
If you are starting a brand new site, it’s definitely better to use dashes than underscores. Search engines don’t read underscores as word separators, and you are therefore missing out on a potential search ranking boost, however small.
As stated earlier, though, it’s likely not worth changing existing URLs for a site you’ve had for some time. There is general agreement that the benefit you could glean from this change would be small compared to the hassle, and it could actually hurt your ranking for a period of time and your link equity.
Since Google assigns a ranking based on URL, changing your URLs becomes a significant shift requiring dedicated redirects and other precautions to maintain site value.
Of course, there is more to the story of URL SEO than simply whether you use underscores or dashes. Let’s look at other important considerations when designing your URL structure in terms of SEO.
At first glance, it might seem better to have longer URLs because you can cram more keywords in there for both search engines and users to see. However, shorter SEOs are typically better for everyone involved. Not only do they keep your URL cleaner and easier on the eyes, but they are also easier to remember and type out.
Using keywords in URLs isn’t considered a major ranking factor, but it can have an impact on a user’s sense of whether your page will answer their question or provide the information they’re looking for.
That being said, the use of keywords in URLs has been downplayed by John Mueller of Google as recently as 2018.
“I wouldn’t worry about keywords or words in a URL. In many cases, URLs aren’t seen by users anyway.”
Even though keywords are considered one of the ranking factors used by Google, it appears that it is a minor one. However, many SEO experts still recommend using keywords in the URL to ensure users have the best possible sense of what they will find on a page.
How much is too much when it comes to using keywords on your site? Check out fifteen places to put keywords without over-optimizing.
When more than one URL directs to a specific page, Google uses canonical URLs to figure out which one should be used. This is also the case if you have several different pages that are home to similar content that Google reads as duplicates of the same page.
If you don’t go out of your way to tell Google which of the URLs is canonical, the search engine will decide for you. In some cases, they might give both URLs equal weight, which likely isn’t what you want.
Explicitly choosing a canonical URL in a set of similar or duplicate pages is important for a number of reasons, including:
There are a number of methods you can use to specify a canonical URL for similar or duplicate pages. It isn’t required to do this, but Google will choose for you if you don’t go out of your way to tell them your preference.
You can learn more about canonical URLs in the documentation section of Google Search Central.
Search engine optimized URLs aren’t just about what you include– it’s just as important what you leave out.
There are a number of things you’ll want to avoid using when writing your URLs and coming up with your overall URL structure (hint: one of them is underscores!)
If you are writing an article with a date in it, it’s best to leave the specific year out of the URL. For example, let’s say you want to write a post that discusses the best URL strategies for 2022. Typically, it’s believed to be better to use the same URL year after year rather than creating a brand new one each year.
Every year, you can update both the title and the content while keeping the URL the same. The benefit of this is that all of the links that were built to the article from the previous year aren’t lost. If someone follows one of the links made during previous years, they will find their way to the updated version of your content.
If the post you’re writing changes dramatically from year to year, you can also create an archive of all of the content from the previous years so your users can still access it.
Dealing with the nitty gritty details of SEO best practices can feel like a full-time job. Considering that you already have your plate full doing what you do best– running your business– you might find that outsourcing your SEO and other digital marketing services allows you to put your energy toward the things that matter to you.
Over the years, the world of SEO has developed into an intricate and complex world that is constantly changing. It’s our job to keep up with the ever-evolving world of SEO and digital marketing so that you don’t have to.
If you’re ready to get more traffic, more leads, and more sales, drop us a line to tell us about your business.