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URL Best Practice: Hyphens, Underscores, or No Separators?

A while ago, Christopher Iwundu published a LinkedIn post discussing URL structure optimization and the best practice when it comes to using hyphens, underscores, or no separators between words in an URL. The reactions and questions from that one post indicated that some business owners, online publishers, content marketers, webmasters, and SEOs need to learn more about this topic. The topic is rarely discussed because many people consider it insignificant.

In this article, we'll discuss;

  1. The impact optimized URL structure makes on your ranking
  2. Whether to use hyphens, underscores, or no separators between words while optimizing your URLs
  3. The consequences of bad URL optimization practices, and 
  4. URL optimization best practices.


An Understanding of Basic URL Structure

Technically, a URL has five parts – the scheme, subdomain, second-level domain, top-level domain, and the subdirectory. How these parts are structured and relate to each other is significant for your site's SEO and user experience (UX).

Let’s explain the structure of the URL:

  • The scheme tells web servers the protocol to use when accessing a page on your website and is often https or http. https is most preferred and common because of the encryption and protection it offers website users.
  • A second-level domain (SLD), commonly called a 'domain name or website domain,' is the name of your website, while the subdomain is a domain that's part of another domain.
  • The top-level domain (TLD) specifies what type of entity the organization registers as on the internet and is usually commercial (.com), educational institution (.edu), organizations (.org), government (.gov), etc.
  • The final one - the subdirectory (subfolder) helps website visitors and search engine crawlers understand which section of a website they're on.

Understanding the best URL structure for SEO and UX and considering it when optimizing your website URL is essential to your website's success.

Mistakes People Make and Best Practices to Adopt

People often consider URLs as only inconsequential addresses to web pages and pay little attention to them while optimizing their pages for search engines. URL structure optimization might impact less than title and heading optimization, but they can be decisive for achieving SEO success. From experience, when it comes to SEO and content marketing, the little things people often neglect make the difference.

For instance, what you use between words in your URL determines how viewers and web crawlers view and understand your page. Getting it right or wrong can be critical to your website's UX and SEO.

There are implications to using a hyphen, underscore, or no separator between words in your URL.

Hyphen between Words in an URL

When you use a hyphen between words in an URL, this is what it looks like:

Google recommends that web publishers use hyphens to separate words in their URLs. When you use hyphens, the words appear separated to web crawlers and help Google better understand the information about the content on the page. For viewers, words separated by hyphens are easier to read on SERPs, social platforms, or anywhere they come across your link.

Underscores between Words in an URL

Using an underscore in your URL looks like this:

The words are readable and might be understandable to the naked human eyes, but they're neither readable nor understandable to web crawlers.

Here's why.

Web crawlers don't recognize 'underscores' as a separator; thus, they're confused into reading, misunderstanding, and misinterpreting the words in your URL as one word (similar to when you don't use a separator).

Additionally, there are certain instances where a link appears as a naked link. In situations like this, hovering the mouse pointer over the link covers the underscores, making the words in the URL appear with white spaces between them. This doesn't look visually appealing to the human eye and is bad for UX.

No Separators between Words in Your URL

URLs without separators between words look like this:

When words in an URL have no separator, they look confusing to the viewer. For such URLs, web crawlers will view, misunderstand and interpret them as one word. URLs without separators have negative effects on your UX and SEO.

Consequences of These URL Optimization Mistakes and What Google Recommends

The consequences of this URL optimization mistake are:

  • Web crawlers' likelihood of misinterpreting your page.
  • Bad UX.

Let's consider this example of a fictional car seller’s business website with an address:

… that wants to publish a gallery page of cars titled 'Car Nation.' The publisher can format their page URL in any of these three ways.

The examples show that this neglect to use the proper separator (hyphen) can confuse crawlers to interpret that page as a page selling the flower, 'carnation,' a herbaceous plant native to the Mediterranean area, rather than 'car nation.' 

This introduces an ambiguity you would rather avoid. 

This misinterpretation by web crawlers might look insignificant, but it has enormous consequences. The easier it is for web crawlers to read and interpret your URL, the easier it is to determine the content of your page and the relevance (and ranking) for the right search query.

Besides search engine ranking implications, let's consider the UX point of view. Hyphens between words increase readability, help users understand the content of a page, and boost CTR from SERPs and other platforms the URL might be shared.

According to Google Developers, "A site's URL structure should be as simple as possible. Consider organizing your content so that URLs are constructed logically and in a manner that is most intelligible to humans."

Other SEO Best Practices for URL Structure Optimization

Besides using a hyphen between words in your URL, here are other SEO best practices for URL on-page optimization.

  • Keep your URLs as short and simple as possible (KISS)
  • Use your keywords in your URL (only when natural).
  • Avoid keyword stuffing (that stuff stopped working a long time ago!)
  • Use the https protocol (it's more secure).
  • Use a hyphen to separate words (as discussed).
  • Write your URLs in lowercase (it's standard).
  • Avoid using unnecessary words (use words strategically)
  • Avoid dates in your URL. (stay evergreen)
  • Use readable words rather than query strings, long ID numbers, and characters (for user experience)
  • Eliminate stop words (the, and, or, of, a, an, to, for, etc.)
  • Spell out numbers (when necessary).
  • Make your URLs readable.
  • Match URLs to page titles (when it makes sense)
  • Use trailing slash (/) for pages with child pages.

Does Using Hyphens in URLs Make a Difference? Final Thoughts

Online publishers neglect optimizing URLs and paying attention to these details because they consider them insignificant to SERP ranking. They forget that search engine ranking is only a means to an end. The goal is to generate leads and conversion, which is achieved by giving readers the best user experience. 

To answer the questions - Yes, using hyphens to separate words in an optimized URL structure makes a difference to UX, SEO, and, consequently, conversions. With this information, we hope business owners, online publishers, content marketers, webmasters, and SEOs prioritize it while executing their URL structure optimization.

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