Conventional "wisdom" is that using a hyphenated domain name such as www.web-site-name.com as opposed to www.websitename.com helps with search engine ranking. I’ve read this "wisdom" in books, in online courses, and repeated numerous times on messages boards. However, I did some experiments and have begun to question whether this conventional "wisdom" is in fact wisdom at all.
Let’s start with the first argument for the conventional "wisdom": Hyphenated domain names allow search engines to recognize each of the separate keywords in your domain name.
Well, from a logical and programming point of view, this argument has never made much sense to me… Search engines are able to spider billions of pages, index them, categorize them, ban spamdex pages, sort the pages by theme, and all sorts of other neat tricks - so I do find it hard to believe that a simple dictionary scan of a domain name for keywords, regardless of whether it contains hyphens or not, is going to be beyond the search engine’s capabilities. Furthermore, I would think being able to properly handle non-hyphenated domain names would be a priority for the search engine’s programmers, given how many important sites don’t use hyphens in their domain names.
In fact, if you go to Google and do a search for merchant account, under each listing is the domain name, and Google, seems to be able to recognize keywords in the domain name (by bolding them) regardless of whether they are separated by hyphens or not.
At the time of writing the top 4 at Google for this search are:
Notice how Google had no trouble in recognizing the keywords, in numbers 1, 3 and 4? According to conventional "wisdom" that’s supposed to be impossible.
But anyway, even if you consider that all hot air, we can do some more search experiments and see whether hyphenated names tend to predominate the in the results.
For my experiments, I’ve tried to pick super-competitive keywords - you know the ones - the ones that advertisers happily bid an arm and a leg for Overture (now part of Yahoo!) - and for which there are bound to be companies fighting for top positions using just about every conceivable SEO technique. If conventional "wisdom" about hyphens is correct, we ought to see a lot of hyphenated domains in the results for these super-competitive keywords.
Here’s the results of my tests on Google (the rankings are based on results I saw on 20 September 2005 - and I only looked at the top 30).
- credit card - no hyphenated domains in the top 30
- debt consolidation - hyphenated domains at positions 9, 11, 16, 27 - only 4 out of 30 results
- internet marketing - hyphenated domains at positions 7*, 19*, 24* - only 0 or 3 of the results.
- merchant account - hyphenated domains at positions 2, 6, 12, 19, 20, 25*, 30 - only 6 or 7 out of 30 results.
- web hosting - no hyphenated results in the top 30 results.
In case you’re wondering why I’ve asterixed some of the items, that’s because they are hyphenated, but the domain names (www.the-dma.org, www.cyber-robotics.com, 1-hit.com - for Internet marketing ; echo-inc.com - for merchant account) don’t have ANY of the keywords in it all! I would not count that as support for the conventional "wisdom" that having your keywords in a hyphenated domain name somehow helps.
So what have we got?
Only 10 cases out of 150 (6.7%) where hyphenated domains containing the keywords were in the top 30. Even if you were to count hyphenated domains not containing keywords (just because they’re hyphenated - as if hyphens by themselves are some kind of magic), and I don’t think you should, it’s still only 14 out 150 (9.3%).
And if we analyze it further, you’ll also notice that the hyphenated domains tend to be lower down the top 30 than their non-hyphenated competitors.
- If we look at the top 10s only, hyphenated keyworded domains, scored just 3 out 50 (6%)
- If we look at the top 5s only, hyphenated keyworded domains, scored only 1 out of 25 (4%)
- And if we look at just the top results - there are no hyphenated keyword domain names at rank 1.
So does that mean hyphenated domains are a total blow out?
Well I can’t go quite that far:
- While I could find no evidence that hyphenated domains helped (they didn’t predominate in the results), I couldn’t really find any evidence that they hindered either.
- So far, I’ve only looked at Google.
- So far, I’ve only looked at a limited number of searches. So, I can’t say whether results would be the same for different searches (unless Google is kind enough to send me an affidavit telling me what their ranking algorithm is!)
- And, finally, if you were to look at the results by whether they contain keywords or not: I think you’d find keyworded domains (whether or not hyphenated) did do pretty well. Which means, that having your keywords in your domain name, does look like it helps. And if you can’t find any good available domain name with your keywords and without hyphens, maybe a hyphenated one would do?
I’ll hopefully return to this subject in a future post, but in the meantime, don’t forget your domain name, is only 1 factor that affects your ranking. How you design your pages (on-page factors) and who links to your (off-page factors) is also important, more important, and you can use tools like SEO Elite or Web Position to help with that.