One of the most common questions I get asked about SEO relates to the best types of domain names. It’s true that having a domain name like poker.com will give you a huge advantage over any competitors in your field, but you’ll pay a premium price for such a valuable piece of virtual real estate. You must also understand that domain names are just one part of the complex SEO equation. Having quality content, good site structure and quality backlinks means your domain name becomes less of an issue.

Keeping your domain name as short as possible is generally a very good piece of advice. For example, pokertips.com is more likely to rank better than thebesttipsforpoker.com. If your website is for a business with a known brand, you may need to consider whether it’s best to use the brand name rather than something relating to your generic products.

One of the most commonly debated aspects of domain names is whether the use of hyphens can put you at a disadvantage when it comes to search engine ranking.

How Do Search Engines Read Hyphens?

Given the choice, most people would rather buy a domain like cameratips.com than camera-tips.com, but there are times when you have to be prepared to compromise. Most SEO experts agree that hyphens are recognized as a separator by search engines. This means that they can actually help in some situations, and use of hyphens can help to clarify a site’s subject matter and content. For example, the domain profitsexchange.com could be read by a search engine as ‘profit sexchange.’ The owner may have a very different subject in mind! Adding a hyphen to make the domain profits-exchange.com would help the search engines read it correctly.

I also get asked if underscores are an alternative to hyphens when choosing domain names. My understanding is that Google reads an underscore as a character rather than a space, and so this isn’t recommended.

Can Hyphens Impact Search Engine Rankings?

There are some reasonable arguments against the use of hyphenated domains, but I’m not aware of any evidence that Google or other search engines penalize you for using them. There were some reports of sites using hyphenated domains suffering after Google’s EMD (exact match domain) changes, but I think that was just a coincidence. I’m sure some hyphenated domains benefited from these changes.

Use of more than one hyphen in a domain is a trick used by some people to keep costs down and include lots of keywords. Google is sophisticated enough to spot this type of thing, so I would advise against using more than one hyphen in a domain. You may find it harder to rank a site with two or three hyphens, so consider alternatives before you spend time and money on this type of domain. You might be able to pick up poker-tips-for-beginners.com at a bargain price, but I’d consider it a bad investment in the long run.

Do Hyphens Put Visitors Off?

Another argument against the use of hyphens is that potential visitors prefer simple domain names. Just as very long domain names can raise suspicion that a site may be ‘spammy,’ too many hyphens in a domain can result in some lost traffic. If you saw the domain best-digital-cameras-for-professionals.com, would you expect it to be a quality site?

If your business model means you attract visitors by word of mouth, use of hyphens can be an issue. Your website needs to have a catchy name that customers will remember easily. This is also the case if you can’t always publish the domain in your marketing. For example, if a shopping channel presenter says ‘go to our website Christmascrafts.com to see more of our products,’ customers wouldn’t expect to have to add hyphens. The domain name Christmas-crafts.com could lose a lot of traffic.

How Many Keywords Work In A Domain?

This is another hot topic of discussion in the SEO community. If you’re late to the party, it’s highly likely that the best domain names are already taken in your category. I personally believe it’s fine to have up to three keywords in a .com domain so long as they aren’t hyphenated. For example, I’d be happy to work with a URL like weddingphotographytips.com. Others may argue that wedding-photography-tips.com could rank just as well, but I’d avoid this for reasons explained earlier. For .net and .org domains, I don’t work with more than two keywords. I always check what’s available, and weddingphotography.net would be an attractive option for me.

On the question of domain extensions, I stick with .com and .net for my business sites. If I were developing a site related to education or charity, I’d for a .org or .edu extension. Some SEO gurus may tell you that .tv and .biz sites can be ranked well, but I never see them in search engine results.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article has clarified the position with regards to hyphenated domains based on my own experience. Future updates to Google may have an impact, but broadly speaking the way hyphens are treated by search engines isn’t likely to change.

If you’re planning to build a brand or a large authority site, it’s worth buying some variations of your domain. For example, Blueshoresurf.com and blue-shore-surf.com. In theory you could deal with issues around competitors attempting to steal your brand value by legal means, but buying a few more domains is far cheaper. It’s also worth covering some of the other domain extensions if you can pick them up for a few dollars.

Smart use of SEO techniques means that building a site on a hyphenated domain won’t necessarily put you at a disadvantage to competitors, so don’t rule them out. If you can get your site digital-camera-lenses.com on page one of Google it doesn’t matter that someone else owns digitalcameralenses.com. That said, remember that some people are suspicious of longer domains and those using hyphens, so your click-through rate may be slightly lower.