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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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Opinion Editorials

AT&T hit with age discrimination lawsuit over using the word “tenured”

(EDITORIAL) 78% of workers are victims of age discrimination. As awareness arises, lawsuits show what may constitute discrimination, including verbiage.

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Older man at cafe representing age discrimination

According to the AARP, 78% of older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. As awareness of ageism increases, lawsuits that allege age bias can help employers understand what constitutes discrimination. A recent case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Smith v. AT&T Mobility Services, L.L.C., No. 21-20366 (5th Cir. May 17, 2022), should give employers pause about using other words that could potentially be a euphemism for “older worker.”

What the lawsuit was about

Smith, a customer service representative at AT&T, alleged that he was denied a promotion because of his age. His manager told him that she was not going to hire any tenured employees. The manager wanted innovative employees in the management positions. Smith took this to mean that he was being denied the promotion because of his age. He sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Texas law.

The district court found that Smith failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as to one claim and failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination as to the other two claims. Smith appealed. The Appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision, but they did say it was “close.” AT&T did not discriminate against Smith by using the word tenured, because there were other employees of the same age as Smith who were promoted to customer service management positions.

Be aware of the verbiage used to speak to employees

This case is another example of how careful employers need to be about age discrimination, not only in job postings. It’s imperative to train managers about the vagaries of ageism in the workplace to avoid a costly lawsuit. Even though AT&T prevailed, the company still had a pretty hefty legal tab. Don’t try to get around the ADEA by using terminology that could screen out older workers, such as “digital native,” or “recent college grad.” Remind employees and managers about ageism. Document everything. Pay attention to other cases about age discrimination, such as the iTutor case or this case about retirement-driven talk. You may not be able to prevent an employee from feeling discriminated against, but you can certainly protect your business by doing what you can to avoid ageism.

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Opinion Editorials

Writing with pen and paper may mean your smarter than your digital peers

(EDITORIAL) Can writing old fashioned make you smarter? Once considered and art form, handwriting is becoming a thing of the past, but should it be?

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Writing on paper job titles.

When I was in college, in 2002, laptops weren’t really commonplace yet. Most students took notes by writing with pen and paper. Today, most students take notes with laptops, tablets, cell phones, or other electronic devices. The days of pen and paper seem to be fading. Some students even wait until the end of class and use their cell phones to take a picture of the whiteboard, so in effect, they are not absorbing any of the information because they “can just take a picture of it and look at it later.”

Is it easier to take notes on an electronic device? I think that largely depends on preference. I type faster than I write, but I still prefer to take notes on paper.

According to researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students who take handwritten notes generally outperform students who typed them.

Writing notes help students learn better, retain information longer, and more readily grasp new ideas, according to experiments by other researchers who also compared note-taking techniques.

While most students can type faster than they write, this advantage is short-term. As the WSJ points out, “after just 24 hours, the computer note takers typically forgot material they’ve transcribed, several studies said. Nor were their copious notes much help in refreshing their memory because they were so superficial.” So while it may take a bit longer to capture the notes by hand, more likely than not, you will retain the information longer if you put pen to paper.

As I teach English Composition at the University of Oklahoma, I would also like to say that while I find this to be true for myself, every student has a different learning style. Typed notes are much better than no notes at all. Some students detest writing by hand and I understand that. Everything in our world has gone digital from phones to cable television so it makes sense, even if I don’t like it, that students gravitate more towards electronic note taking than pen and paper.

While I would like to see more students take notes by hand, I certainly won’t require it. Some students are navigating learning disabilities, anxieties, and other impediments that make taking notes digitally more advantageous.

I imagine the same is true for other areas as well: instead of typing meeting notes, what would happen if you wrote them by hand? Would you retain the information longer? Perhaps, and perhaps not; again, I think this depends on your individual learning style.

I would like to suggest that if you are one of the more “electronically-minded” writers, use a flashcard app, or other studying tool to help you review your classroom notes or meeting notes to make them “stick” a bit better. While I find this type of research intriguing, if you enjoy taking your notes electronically, I wouldn’t change my method based on this.

If it’s working for you, keep doing it. Don’t mind me, I’ll be over here, writing everything down with pen and paper.

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Opinion Editorials

5 reasons using a VPN is more important now than ever

(EDITORIAL) Virtual private networks (VPN), have always been valuable, but now, more than ever, entrepreneurs and businesses really should have them.

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VPN

Virtual private networks (VPN), have always been valuable, but some recent developments in technology, laws, and politics are making them even more important for entrepreneurs and businesses.

A VPN serves as an intermediary layer of anonymity and security between your computer and your internet connection. Your Wi-Fi signal is a radio wave that can ordinarily be intercepted, so any data you transmit back and forth could be taken and abused by interested parties. VPNs act as a kind of middleman, encrypting the data you transmit and protecting you from those prying eyes.

Top10BestVPN.com offers a selection of some of the best-reviewed VPN services on the market; there you can see the different approaches to security and anonymity that different brands take, and get a feel for the price points that are available. But why is it that VPNs are becoming even more important for business owners and entrepreneurs?

These are just five of the emerging influencers in the increasing importance of VPNs:

1. The rise of IoT. The Internet of Things (IoT) is already taking off, with a predicted 8.4 billion devices will be connected to the internet by the end of the year. All those extra connections mean extra points of vulnerability; hackers are skilled at finding tiny entry points, so every new channel you open up on your Wi-Fi connection is another opportunity they could potentially exploit. Using a VPN won’t make your network completely hack-proof—user errors, like giving your password away in a phishing scam, are still a potential threat—but VPNs will make your network more secure than it was before.

2. The popularity of ransomware. Ransomware is growing in popularity, seizing control of devices, sometimes for weeks or months before activating, then holding the device “hostage,” and demanding payment in exchange for releasing the files that are stored on it. These attacks are fast and efficient, making them ideal for hackers to use against small businesses. Again, using a VPN won’t make you immune from these types of attacks, but they will make you harder to target—and hackers tend to opt for the path of least resistance.

3. The escalation of attacks on small businesses. Speaking of small businesses, they happen to be some of the most frequent targets of cybercriminals. About 43 percent of all cyberattacks target small businesses, in part because they have fewer technological defenses but still have valuable assets. Protecting yourself from cyberattacks is a must if you want your business to survive.

4. Political attacks on net neutrality. Politicians have recently attempted to attack and eliminate net neutrality, which is the long-standing guarantee that internet providers can’t violate user privacy by collecting and/or reporting on certain types of data, and can’t create “slow lanes” that throttle certain types of traffic. If net neutrality is abolished, you could face slower internet traffic and decreased privacy on the web. A VPN could, in theory, protect you from these effects. First, your web traffic would be anonymized, so internet providers couldn’t gather as much data on you as other customers. Second, you’ll be routed through a private VPN server, which could help you get around some of the speed throttling you might otherwise see. It’s uncertain whether net neutrality will ultimately fall, but if it does, you’ll want a VPN in place to protect you.

5. The affordability and diversity of VPNs available. Finally, it’s worth considering that VPNs are more affordable and more available than ever before. There are specific VPNs for all manner of businesses and individuals, and they’re all reasonably affordable. Inexpensive options can be yours for as little as a few dollars per month, and more robust, secure options are still affordable, even for frugal businesses. If you try a VPN provider you don’t like, you can always cancel and switch to another provider. This availability makes it easier to find exactly what you need.

If you’ve never used a VPN before and you’re confused, try not to be intimidated. VPNs sound complex, but connecting to one is a simple login process you can use on practically any device. The hardest part is choosing a reliable provider that suits your business’s need. With the influx of coming changes, it’s a good idea to get your VPN in place sooner rather than later.

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