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Search Engine Optimization Tip – Word Separators

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hyphens and dashes and pipes oh-my!Hyphens and underscores and pipes – OH MY!

Welcome back, hope you are learning lots from my series of SEO Tips.  This week we’ll take a look at some common methods of separating words in your URLs and page titles, and which should provide you the best results in the search engine result pages (SERPs).

Separators in URLs

Depending on how long the developer has been creating pages, how they were trained and the system they use, they often develop a favorite method (right or wrong) and stick with it.  Unfortunately for me, my coding skills were developed before the ‘net took over the world and my brain still wants to use underscores as separators.  I’ll explain why that’s not a good idea shortly.  But, my point is that you may see different developers doing different things, and having no idea that what they are doing is right or wrong – it’s just the way they have always done it.

Some people just smoosh all the words together like “PortlandMaineHomeSales.php”, which to us humans looks OK, but Google will see this as one big word.  Don’t do this if you can help it.

People who started creating documents after Windows (and Macs) gained popularity often want to use spaces in their file names.  In most cases, web servers and browsers (firefox, internet explorer, etc.) can handle spaces fine and will deliver the pages.  However, spaces get translated to “%20″ by the browser, this makes the page URL look confusing for your visitors.  For example, you might create a file named “four bedroom ranch style homes.php” on your web site.  It will load just fine most of the time, and the engines will see each word individually.  However, when displayed to your visitors, it will look like this; “four%20bedroom%20ranch%20style%20homes.php”.  Not so nice to look at, is it? Additionally, the “%20% is saved by analytics programs making it difficult for you make heads or tails of your traffic.

I’ve already told you that using the underscore “_” character is a bad idea.  This is because Google treats the underscore as a connector, not as a separator.  For example, in a URL you may have something like “/quahog_rhode_island_home_sales/”.  To us humans it reads fine, we can clearly see there are five distinct words there.  However, Google just sees one big word.  As such, this URL will not be returned for a query of “quahog rhode island home sales”. Well, that’s only half right – the page might be returned, depending on its content, but the URL will not contribute to its success in the SERPs.

That just leaves us with the dash, or hyphen “-“.  As you may have guessed by now, this is the preferred method of separating words in your file names and URLs.  In one of his webmaster videos, Matt Cutts tells us that if we are already using underscores, and they are working fine – leave them alone.  However, he does say Google prefers dashes.

Separators in page titles

When it comes to page titles, all of the rules above also apply.  But there are a couple additional characters that people will sometimes use.  The ampersand “&” and the pipe “|”.  Google treats each of these as a word separator, so either one is fine to use.  As with all things Google, Matt Cutts hints in another video that it’s best to do what your users like.

Separators in domain names

When it comes to domains, Google does things a little different.   Because domains are so important, and (sometimes) difficult to acquire, Google put some extra steps in the algorithm when it comes to processing them.  Unlike in directory & file names, Google is able to recognize when multiple words are squished together in a domain.  I’m sure that they prefer they be separated by dashes (less time required to analyze the words), but it is not required and there  is not impact on rankings.  It is also easier to communicate your web address to someone when dashes are not used.  Most people understand the spaces are omitted when you tell them a domain name, so when you say “hey, take a look at today’s agent genius dot com”, they know to visit agentgenius.com.  Put that dash in there and it’s not so clear, perhaps even a little confusing to have to say “go checkout the latest post on agent dash genius dot com”.  Obviously, we can’t always get the domain we want without using hyphens, but whenever possible I recommend you avoid them.

There you have – word separators in a nut-shell.  No geekery and hopefully not too much controversy for the commenters 😉

Jack Leblond is a SEO/SEM professional working for a large corporation full time in Austin, TX. He is not a Realtor, he is our in-house SEO expert. Jack is the Director of Internet Strategy and Operations for TG (www.tgslc.org). In addition to managing the team that develops and maintains the company's multiple Web sites, he focuses on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), e-marketing and Social Media. Jack's background ranges from Submarine Sonar Technician/Instructor for the United States Navy, technical writer, pioneer in internet/intranet creation for McGraw-Hill and Times Mirror Higher Education, former Adjunct Professor for two Universities teaching web-related courses, has served as a city council member and co-founded Net-Smart, a web design and hosting company, where he managed networks and oversaw the development of hundreds of Web sites. As a free-lance SEO consultant, Jack performs SEO Site Audits for small/medium businesses that want their web sites to perform better in the search engine listings.

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26 Comments

26 Comments

  1. Chuck G

    October 31, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Jack,

    That’s outstanding information! Thank goodness for WP plug-ins like All-in-one-SEO that (I think) do most of the things you talked about above automatically. There’s now way I could remember to code things properly for SEO without it.

    Your series has been great — keep them coming.

    Chuck

  2. Rob McCance

    October 31, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Jack:

    Great post.

    Took a sometimes controversial topic, laid out the known facts and supporting info, and convinced me (at least) that the hyphens are the way to go.

    I’ve been researching this because I am designing some primary portal pages under my main URL and want to get my one stab at the file names as optimum as possible.

    You’ll find all sorts of theories out there, but at some point you need to choose one so you can name the frikkin page and move on, LOL!

    Nice work, much appreciated and that choice is made for me now.

  3. Jay Thompson

    November 1, 2009 at 6:58 am

    I’m confused.

    You say Google can’t separate “smushed” words in a URL, but it can in a domain name.

    A domain name is a URL. Why can Google figure out non-separated words in a URL but not a domain name? If all it takes is an extra step or two in an algorithm it seems like they’d just do that for everything….

  4. Paula Woolley

    November 1, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Love this post! I didn’t realize that Google can ‘unsquish’ domain names but not interior pages names. VERY good to know!

  5. Bob

    November 1, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Rob, this isn’t a controversially subject. Jack laid out what is generally accepted as fact and confirmed as such by Matt Cutts many times.

    • Rob McCance

      November 1, 2009 at 4:12 pm

      How’s that new site coming? Didn’t get tripped up in the WP Admin Module yet did ya?

      🙂

  6. SteveBeam

    November 2, 2009 at 12:16 am

    I’ve always wondered why I see that %20 in there. I guess those long domains are ok after all.

  7. Jack Leblond

    November 2, 2009 at 9:36 am

    @Jay – Forgive me; I did lump both the domain and site structure (directories & file names) into one broad category and call them “URLs”. I should not have.

    In any case, Google is able to break down and figure out the parts of your domain before the .com/.net/.org etc. It can not figure out the parts after that.

    While I can not answer with any certainty, there are a few possible reasons for this. 1) Google knows that it is better for the user to not have extra characters in domains. 2) Google knows that while domain names are sometimes out of your control, folders and files never are. 3) It takes time to breakdown all that text. While it may only take a few fractions of a second for each full URL, imagine how much slower the indexing would be if they had to figure out the words of every folder and file on every site.

  8. Kyle Hogan

    November 2, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks for the information. I think I need to make some quick changes to my website based your information. Those %20’s are sure ugly on my site.

  9. Ann Cummings

    November 2, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    I had been told this forever but never knew why – thanks for that explanation. I try to stick to the pipe or a dash because that was drilled into my head. Knowing why makes sense..

  10. Jack Leblond

    November 2, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    @Kyle Good idea to change those file names, just make sure you do 301 redirects from the old names to the new ones.

  11. Tim Wilson

    November 4, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Jack,

    Thanks so much! Your entire series is a “must read” for me as I am putting together my new site…

  12. Debra Hardy

    August 13, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Jack, Once again thanks for such a great explaination of the dash vs. underscore. I was using the underscore between words in my alt tags, so I think changing those to dashes might be one more step in improving my SEO ranking. I keep coming back to your website over and over, and keep learning more everytime!

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Business Finance

Will cash still be king after COVID-19?

(EDITORIAL) Physical cash has been a preferred mode of payment for many, but will COVID-19 push us to a cashless future at an even faster rate?

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No more Cash

Say goodbye to the almighty dollar, at least the paper version. Cashless is where it’s at, and COVID-19 is at least partially to thank–or blame, depending on your perspective.

Let’s face it, we were already headed that direction. Apps like Venmo, PayPal, and Apple Pay making cashless transactions painless enough that even stubborn luddites were beginning to migrate to these convenient payment methods. Then COVID-19 hit the world and suddenly, handling cash is a potential danger.

In 2020, the era of COVID-19, the thought of all the possible contaminants, traveling around on an old dollar bill makes most of us cringe. Keep your nasty sock money, boob money, and even your pocket money to yourself, sir or madam, because I’ll have none of it! Nobody knows or wants to know where your money has been. We like the idea of taking your money, sure, but not the idea of actually touching it…ewww, David. Just ewww.

There is no hard evidence that cash can transmit COVID-19 from one person to the other, but perception is a powerful agent for changing our behavior. It seems plausible, considering the alarming rate this awful disease is moving through the world. Nobody has proven it can’t move with money.

There was a time when cash was King. Everyone took cash; everyone preferred it. Of course, credit cards have been around forever, but they’ve always been just as problematic as they are convenient. Like GrubHub and similar third party food delivery apps, banks end up charging both the business and the consumer with credit cards. It’s a trap. Cash cut out the (greedy) middle man.

Plus, paying with a credit card could be a pain. Try paying a taxi driver with a credit card prior to, oh, about 2014 when Uber hit the scene big time. Most drivers refused to take cash, because credit cards take a percentage off the top. Enter rideshare companies like Uber. Then in walks Square. Next PayPal, Venmo, and Apple Pay enter the scene. Suddenly, cabbies would like you to know they now take alternate forms of payment, and with a smile.

It’s good in a way, but it may end up hurting small businesses even more in the long run. The harsh reality of this current moment is that you shouldn’t be handling cash. No less an authority than the CDC recommends contactless forms of payment whenever possible. However, those cabbies weren’t wrong.

The banking industry has been pushing for a reduced reliance on cash since the 1950s, when they came up with the idea of credit cards. It was a stroke of evil genius to come up with more ways to expedite our lifelong journey into crushing debt.

The financial titans are very, very good at what they do, at the expense of all the rest of us. The New York Times reported on the trend, noting:

“In Britain alone, retailers paid 1.3 billion pounds (about $1.7 billion) in third-party fees in 2018, up £70 million from the year before, according to the British Retail Consortium.

Payment and processing companies such as PayPal (whose stock is up about 55 percent this year) and Adyen, based in the Netherlands (up 72 percent), also stand to gain.”

All kinds of related banking-related industries stand to benefit as well. Maybe we’ll go back to spending physical cash one day, but I don’t think there’s any hurry. Fewer old grandpas are hiding their cash in their proverbial mattresses, and the younger, most tech-savvy generation seems perfectly content to use their smart phones for everything.

We get it. Convenience plus cleanliness is a sweet combo. I only wish it weren’t such a racket.

If this trend towards a cashless future continues, there may be a possibility that travelers in the future may not experience what it’s like to fumble with foreign currency, to smile and shrug and hand over a handful of bills because they have no idea how many baht, pesos, or rand those snacks are. They may not experience the realization that other countries’ bills come in different shapes and sizes, and they may not come home with the most affordable souvenirs (coins and bills).

We shall see what the future holds. Odds are, it may not be cash money, at least in the U.S. I hope the cashless movement makes room for everyone to participate without being penalized. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, people. We need to find more ways to ease the path for people, not callously profit off of them.

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Tech News

Google Maps will soon display traffic lights

(TECH NEWS) The addition of traffic light positions to Google Maps promises to boost navigation accuracy. Now you won’t run a light while looking at navigation.

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google maps traffic lights

At over 150 million monthly users, Google Maps’ value is not to be understated. With a new feature that shows traffic light positions rolling out to select devices and locations soon, one can expect that trend to continue.

A common issue with navigation via an app–especially when navigating solo–is a lack of precision that can lead to confusion, missed exits, potentially dangerous driving, and, worst of all, spilled coffee. By adding the location of traffic lights, Google Maps will improve both landmark recognition and automated navigation by providing drivers with more accessible information.

It’s worth noting a couple of arguing points, the first of which is the assertion that Google is starting from scratch on this feature. They aren’t. In fact, Japan-based Google Maps users have had access to traffic light positioning for years; Google is simply expanding the feature to include a larger number of cities and population density.

In a similar vein, Google also isn’t the first company to implement an ease-of-access feature such as this. Apple Maps has incorporated traffic light recognition since the release of iOS 13, and while its use is hit-or-miss (my iPhone 11 fails to pick up most traffic lights in my admittedly rural town of residence), the option to have Siri direct users to the nearest traffic light rather than saying “in 213.7 feet, turn left” is helpful.

That said, Apple Maps is a service which sees a little over 20 million monthly users–a far cry from Google Maps’ monthly base. For Google, accuracy and speed of updates will be paramount for a successful, routinely helpful launch.

At the time of this writing, Google plans to release the traffic light feature in New York, San Francisco, and a few other United States cities. The feature will be available on Android devices–sorry for now, Apple users–and will ideally expand to encompass most of the country if the initial release is successful.

It will be interesting to see how comprehensive Google’s coverage is and how quick the company is to adjust positioning of lights as cities do what cities do best. For now, if you have an Android device, keep an eye on your Maps app–good things are coming your way.

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Business News

Plastic bags are making a comeback, thanks to COVID-19

(BUSINESS NEWS) Plastic bags are back, whether you like it or not – at least for now.

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Plastic bags

Single use plastic bags are rising like a phoenix from the ashes of illegality all over the country, from California to New York. Reusable bags are falling out of favor in an effort to curtail the spread of COVID-19. It’s a logical step: the less something is handled, generally, the safer it is going to be. And porous paper bags are thought to have a higher potential to spread the virus through contact.

It’s worth mentioning that single use plastic bags are considerably more
environmentally efficient to manufacture compared to paper, cloth, and reusable plastic bags. Per unit, they require very little material to make and are easily mass produced. It also goes without saying that they have a very short lifespan, after which they end up sitting in landfills, littering streets, or drifting through oceans.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to deny that single use plastics have the potential to be as dangerous to humans as COVID-19. Coronavirus is a very immediate existential threat to us in the United States, but the scale of the global crises that stem from the irresponsible consumption of cheap disposable goods, also cannot be overstated. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t going anywhere. (And did you know that it’s just one of many huge garbage patches around the world?)

So… what exactly are we going to do about the comeback of plastic bags? Because to be honest, I used to work in grocery retail, and it is difficult and often unrewarding. So, I wouldn’t exactly love handling potentially contaminated tote bags all day in the midst of a pandemic if I were still a supermarket employee. You couldn’t pay me enough to feel comfortable with that – forget minimum wage!

I used to have a plastic bag stuffed full of other plastic bags sitting in my kitchen, like American nesting dolls, before disposable plastics fell from grace. (I’m sure some of y’all know exactly what I’m talking about.) This bag of bags was never a point of pride. It got really annoying because it just kept growing. There are only so many practical home uses for the standard throw-away plastic shopping bag. Very small trash can liners; holding snarls of unused cables, another thing I accumulate for no reason; extremely low-budget packing material; one could get crafty and somehow weave them into a horrible sweater, I guess.

I don’t miss my bag of bags. I don’t want to have to deal with another. Hey, Silicon Valley? Got any disruptive ideas for this one?

Even if we concede that disposable plastics are a necessary evil in the fight against COVID-19, the fact remains that they stick around long after you’re done with them. That’s true whether you throw them out or not.

I’m not trying to direct blame anywhere. Of course businesses should do their best to keep their customers and staff safe, and if that means using plastic bags, so be it. Without clear guidance from our federal government, every part of society has been fumbling and figuring out how to keep one another healthy with the tools they’ve got at hand. (…Well, almost every part.)

The changes to the state bag bans have been cautious and temporary so far, which is a small relief. But nobody really knows how much longer the pandemic will rage on and necessitate the relaxations.

I won’t pretend that I have a sure solution. All I can really ask is that we all be extra mindful of our usage of these disposable plastic products. Let’s think creatively about what we might otherwise throw away. We must not trade one apocalypse for another.

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