How one tiny hyphen destroyed our SEO efforts

Person typing

You might have seen our SEO challenge last month, where three of Silktide’s intrepid developers battled to get their website the highest in Google’s rankings for the obscure term: ‘frictionless owls’

Here’s the order they came when we finished the challenge:

  1. frictionlessowls.com – David’s site had content rich with relevant keywords.
  2. www.frictionlessowls.co.uk – Ali’s site had a few pages of unique content.
  3. frictionless-owls.com – Oliver’s site with machine-generated nonsensical content.

There are so many factors that affect the order of rankings, so we decided to continue testing.

Was it the auto-generated content that caused Oliver to fail?

Originally we were very quick to assume that Oliver’s site (frictionless-owls.com) came last because it contained pages and pages of machine-generated content which didn’t make sense to any human. We assumed that Google is clever enough to pick out nonsense from real text which is why it didn’t score highly, but we later found out that might not be true.

As you can see, Oliver’s domain name was identical to David’s apart from the fact that it was hyphenated.

The negative effect of the hyphen

SEO experts SEOmoz recommend not to use hyphens in URLs, saying they “detract from credibility and can act as a spam indicator”. You might think this is unfair, but imagine if someone registered face-book.com. It instantly looks like it’s trying to be a Facebook rip-off and you’d be immediately suspicious.

So that got us wondering, could it be simply the hyphen in Oliver’s domain name that meant he failed? If so, it means he was doomed right from the start.

We decided to do a test, just for fun, and to see if we could learn anything else from our frictionless owls websites. So we swapped the content around between David and Oliver’s sites.

With David’s content on Oliver’s domain name, and Oliver’s content on David’s domain, we eagerly waited to see what Google would do. If they had a problem with Oliver’s spammy content, the site that’s currently in number one spot should plummet, while the bottom site should bounce to the top.

Remember, we still hadn’t linked to these sites, so there wasn’t any incoming links to affect the testing.

Playing the waiting game

We left these sites alone for a few weeks without an update, so when we swapped the content around it took the Googlebot a few weeks to get around to revisiting the sites.

When it did, we checked the rankings constantly, making sure that we searched using a server, and not from someone’s computer, to avoid the bias of Google’s personalised search.

Nothing changed

After 4 weeks, nothing changed in the rankings The domains were in exactly the same order. But, some other things had altered.

Google usually shows a few subpages, and bundles them all together in one search result with “show more results from…” etc. It was when these pages changed that we knew Google had indexed our swapped content correctly.

Google was also taking content from the page and showing it in the snippet, displaying some of Oliver’s nonsensical gibberish for the top result.

This was when I facepalmed.

Oliver’s machine-generated content was beating both mine and Ali’s content. Now is the time we need John Connor – the machines have won!

So it is obviously possible to fool Google with fake content. However, in our test the fake content was only up against two other websites. If you were to put Oliver’s machine-generated nonsense into a real SEO arena, it would probably rank poorly. In our SEO challenge though, we proved that Oliver was beaten by his hyphen.

The problem with hyphens

So it looks like hyphens in domain names do mean lower positing in Google’s SERP. If Oliver had the non-hyphenated domain name from the start, it’s likely that he’d have won our SEO challenge).

I’ve heard people advising not using hyphens in domain names for years, but always for the reason that it’s hard to understand when you read it aloud, or more difficult to remember. Not for SEO reasons. But now I’ve got proof that Google will favour non-hyphenated domains.

We know that our test isn’t entirely scientific, and it’s based on one isolated incident. But what I hope this shows is that choosing the right domain name is crucial to success. If you’re setting up a new site, here’s some classic advice for choosing the right domain name from the SEOmoz blog.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/oliver.emberton Oliver Emberton

    So do I win a prize?

  • http://www.psyked.co.uk/ James

    Very interesting results!

    What do you think about using hyphens in specific page URLs? I suppose this only applies to the main domain, but you never know…

    • Anonymous

      Good question, we think this is okay as it’s a handy way to separate words in your URL. Matt Cutts from Google recommends using hyphens instead of underscores to break words in a URL (http://www.seroundtable.com/archives/014445.html), so we assume this is good practice.

    • Andreas Belivanakis

      Yes, it can only apply to the main domain, as underscores are not valid characters to use in domain names. You may only use underscores in file names.

      It is a good practice, however, to avoid underscores altogether, not only for consistency, but because words aren’t really separated with underscores as far as search engines are concerned. Google would probably perceive them as a unified word.

  • Andreas Belivanakis

    This is very interesting!  I believe that a few years ago, the opposite was true. If I wanted to rank for the keywords “milos island”, I had to use a hyphen to separate the two words in the domain, as in “www.milos-island.com”. Without the hyphen, Google would read it as “milosisland” which is a single word–neither “milos” nor “island”. 

    In fact, some SEO experts advised precisely that. They’d recommend acquiring both domains if possible, i.e., milosisland.com because it is easier to pronounce and write, as well as milos-island.com because supposedly it’d rank better with search engines for the keywords “milos” and “island”.

    Apparently, however, over the years Google got smarter, and was eventually able to pick out given keywords or character strings from within a long, compound word. So, Google would discover “milos” from “milosisland” or “milosvillas” or “milosyachting”, etc.

    • Anonymous

      Very interesting Andreas, thanks!

  • http://www.buckettrucksonline.com/ sam

    what does this mean for already established domains with hyphens? To me, it really comes down to links and citations… the more authority you’d have directed at the domain, the less the hyphen would set you back.

    • Anonymous

      That’ true. I believe a hyphenated domain can rank better than a non-hyphenated if it had more incoming links. But we wanted to test without any incoming links at all.

  • Andreas Belivanakis

    That’s true. There are a lot more variables to consider. 

    The hyphen issue is not the most important, but other things being equal, it is a consideration.

    In fact, both my website as well as my established competitor’s (no. 2 and no. 1 on Google for our main, chosen keywords respectively) use hyphenated versions of the domain. Mine is http://www.milos-island.com . The non-hyphenated version, however, ranks high on Yahoo and Bing (not on Google) even though it has never been a developed website. It has been a poorly-made under construction site for 12 years.

  • Walrus

    What domain do you suggest when a company’s name is somebody & somebody? eg. Smith & Jones? What is best: smithjones? smith_jones? smith-jones?

  • Andreas Belivanakis

    Well, smith_jones is an invalid domain name, so your only choices are smithjones and smith-jones.  I’d get both if I were you.

    • Anonymous

      If your name is Smith & Jones, I’d register the domain smithandjones, just so that you don’t have to change the way you tell people over the phone or on radio adverts. Otherwise you’d have to say Smith hyphen Jones!

  • http://www.careersaver.com Samantha

    I had no idea a hyphen would affect results that way. Oh, the elusive google ranking system, how I loathe thee.

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  • http://www.christianhunter.com Christian Hunter

    Just to be clear, in the above comments the term “URL” should technically be “URI”, correct?

    If not, I’m seriously confused!

    Thanks.

  • John Russell

    Very interesting. We were originally advised to register both the hyphenated, and non-hyphenated names, which we did. The hyphenated name forwards to the non-hyphenated name where the site is.

    It doesn’t sound like there’s any value in having both – what do you think?

    • silktide

      Having the hyphenated could be useful in case the user makes a mistake. But there’s absolutely no SEO benefits of registering domains and making them redirect to the site as a redirecting domain will never appear in Google. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/milosisforlovers Andreas Belivanakis

        I agree there is no concrete SEO benefit for registering both. However, I’d still try to get both the hyphenated and the non-hyphenated domain name for competitive reasons, i.e., to prevent a competitor or cybersquatter from registering it. It’s only about $10/year, so I believe it’s good advice. Same thing for the .net and perhaps also for the .org version of the domain.

        Regarding ccTLDs, I’d get the native country’s TLD in addition to the .com version, if available.

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  • Brennan Lukav

    With the new google update hyphens have been doomed. Had a site ranking top for over 12 months, after the googled update the site dropped 7 pages back and had yet to recover. Yes the site was a bit spammy having hyphens, but that is now 1000+ visits per month for a company now gone. Guess we can’t complain, we all knew from the start they have no authority, it was just good to use them while we could.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Longley/100001406650566 Chris Longley

    Ha…. I have a hyphenated EMD and lots of identical footer anchot texts…so shall i give up now? lol Google is now in bed with corperates and branding seo. The rest are just PPC revenues in their eyes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.betts.3348 Robert Betts

    I’ve despised Google for years because no matter how hard I try they always slam dunk my site. What is it? The same as it has been since 2002: Prose-n-Poetry.com. That’s spammy ? The site has averaged 39,000+ visits per month over the last 10 years, no thanks to Google. I quit trying to please Google many years ago.

  • http://fannied.blogspot.com/ Fannie

    Very interesting. I’ve been advised to add hyphens to my domain to make it more distinctively different from a similar existing web address. Now it seems the hyphens might be more harmful to the credibility of my site. Thanks.

  • JCB1371

    Very interesting but I just noticed that when you try to buy a domain with extention .com in GODADDY they take at once and tell you that is already taken, and offer you the other less important options, then they try to sell you your requested domain in 2000$, I tryed with differents names for fun with the same result.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1013293822 RE Southon

    Nice article and comments. As a friend’s (registered business name) auDa domain was hijacked we have been thinking about countering this with the business/domain name suffixed with 1. Can anyone provide feedback on this, good, bad or otherwise? Thanks if you can help. PS I am not a fan of hyphens etc, chers

  • Mark Harkin

    Thanks for this post, I was considering using a hypen in a domain thats how I cam across this post, great info, Thnaks

  • Cooper

    dunno, i’ve got a site ranking #1 for competitive sports apparel keywords and it’s got 2 hyphens in it… I’d always prefer non-hyphenated to hyphenated, but it’s definitely something one can overcome… I’d suggest that the study supports multiple conclusions… could be that the first crawl creates a baseline that then the swaped content builds upon or detracts from. Also, duplicate content flags could have been raised depending on the timing of the crawls (taking content from one site and putting it on another).

  • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

    First, see if you are connected to the Internet. It’s hard to reach the world when you are not on the Internet.

  • http://twitter.com/SanDiegoNewsNow San Diego News

    Hmmm…..

    I run many sites with hyphens and all of them have multiple first page serp for multiple keywords. I do post original content, but more importantly I make sure to use a Google Verified author account for every post, and we post in Google Plus. On the top search term, which generally is the URL domain name as well, we list #1, but it takes time to get there.

    I have found that from the time I register a new domain, to the point of it gaining 1st position for its url name takes about 8-12 months. I have also found that the actual blog post do better in terms of position and immediate visibility. In fact posting blog leaders and links on G+ pointing back to my articles usually results in 4 out 5 post ranking within 48 hours and normally on the first page in the top 5. But it does vary.

    I can see your logic is solid and can’t fault your techniques of testing, I just don’t get the same results as you do. Could be the work we do in Social Media is having greater impact than I anticipated.

    • silktide

      Thanks for your reply @twitter-963337982:disqus! Of course domains with hyphens can be ranked highly, but in the case described above, it was something that hindered the site’s rankings.
      Also re your timings, we probably didn’t do anywhere near the amount of linkbuilding and social media as you would have. Also this test was done around June 2011, and Google has changed a lot since then (think Penguin & Panda etc). Maybe it’s time to do a similar experiment?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500340307 Den Bradshaw

    Is it not possible that, as the content from David’s site had been indexed by google as original content for David’s site, and then was put on Oliver’s, it was no longer “original content” and lost the first ‘bump’ that fresh content gets with google? At that point, the race had already been lost. I really think you’d have to redo this whole test, putting fresh machine-generated content on a different URL that was non-hyphenated, and then the non-machine-content on a hyphenated domain. Simply swapping the content doesn’t give much respect to google’s ability to recognize fresh content and cache abilities…

    • silktide

      Interesting point Den. We’re considering doing a new experiment!

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    NOPE. Your test was invalid because (as usually happens with these kinds of tests) you failed to control for all other possible influences. You cannot isolate a factor on the basis of assumption like this. Hyphens in domain names DO NOT hurt your SEO. I have been using them for years and outranking hyphenless domains with no problem.

    • Thomas

      You make a great point. This test is unfortunately not scientific (not even close).

  • bmilleare

    We conducted some research recently into hyphens and Google rankings – the evidence certainly suggests they got hit:

    http://www.highposition.com/blog/hyphenated-domains-google/

    Edit: just noticed the original post is actually 2 years old, damn you HN.

    • silktide

      haha yes this experiment was performed 2 years ago, before Penguin & Panda. Thanks for commenting though, that’s an interesting article you posted!

  • highonseo

    What about Shared Ink – do you really want Google deciding where to separate words there? lol Or Experts-Exchange? I mean … I love hyphens as a user because it makes domains easier to read.

  • http://www.lunawebs.com/ Shad Vick

    to get more scientific you need to start 3 new urls with and without hyphens with entirely new software generated content. Put them up all at the same time and then wait and compare. This will take out the bias of duplicate/unique content – however – it will depend who google crawls first – so keep track of that as well. I’m curious of the results. You’ll have to experiment this with a set of 9 domains grouped into 3 with a hyphen in each set – each with 3 sets of computer generated content to get enough of a sample.

  • GTS WebPlus

    It is customary in blogs to rewrite url with hypen.

  • Bryce Marsden

    Sorry to post on such an old thread, but I had a question that I was looking to get some insight on.

    For words such as co-working, would Google punish those?

    More results come up for “co-working” than “coworking and co working”. Would it be beneficial to list my webpage with a hyphen?

  • http://kashmirtrek.com/ Kashmir Trek

    Thanks for the great things about domain names…

  • http://www.slendersafari.com/ Shey Harms

    Very well written article. I was thinking about buying a domain name with a hyphen in it, but after reading this, I think I will reconsider that idea. Thanks for doing the experiment for me! :)

  • http://www.incion.com/ web design company los angeles

    Hello..Lovely and fantastic Article…Thanks to all..

  • http://perrypuzzles.com/product/8-5-x-11-custom-jigsaw-puzzle-48-pieces/ Picture jigsaw puzzle

    I was looking for something like this…

  • Bollox

    Bollox. If you want to prove your theory. Use the same content for each site. Google bits don’t rank your site fresh every duct, they build up a profile of the site, the bit saw you had new content, they like this. Compare like with like.

    • silktide

      Problem is if we used the exact same content for each site Google will definately penalise the other sites and remove the other 2 sites due to them being duplicates. We are interested in doing a fair test though of course, how would you have done a fairer test?

  • Paul

    Can’t argue with the results of the test – they confirm what I have believed for some time, but I must say that I’ve always thought Google dropped a bollock on this one.

    Just as an example, if I ran a community forum for local children called ‘Kids Exchange’, this means that I would either be able to rank more easily as ‘kidsexchange.com’ (not exactly a perfect domain name for readability!!) or not rank as highly as ‘kids-exchange.com’. How does that help anyone?

    In fact, I would also argue that hyphenating absolutely improves readability in every single instance. If words weren’t meant to separated when read thenIwouldbewritingthiscommentlikethis. And if the convention was to always hyphenate between words, there’d be no problem remembering domain names or saying them to people either (you’d just not say ‘dash’ every time because it would be implied).

    As a real example, I’m looking at buying a domain for a brand called Eve Luxe. If I go for eveluxe.com then people could very well read that wrong (i.e. ‘everlux’ etc). So eve-luxe.com would be much better. But then I’m hurt in search! What should I do?

  • RJ

    frictionless-owls.com now seems to be first lol.

  • Josh

    how-one-tiny-hyphen-destroyed-our-seo-efforts

  • manikmia

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  • Chip Monson

    http://us.coca-cola.com/home/ is all ize gots ta say

    dat be gotting a hyphon mon, be telling me back howz dat discredit you

  • http://kevinwoolsey.com/ Kevin Andrew Woolsey

    Dealing with this very issue right now with naming a website. Thank you for the insights.