To hyphenate or not to hyphenate – that is the question

I just bought a domain name on Godaddy for a new project.

Searching for a good domain is kinda fun and always a challenge. It’s 2016 and your domains have been taken literally decades ago. Some are being used, most are being squatted over with their owners demanding exuberant prices, often in the six-digit realm. Not really an option when all you want to do is start a new blog on something you’re interested in.

So, two words then.

Anything with “blog” as the second word is taken. Duh!  Most other cool words like “love”, “lover”, “fun”, “central” or “about” are long gone as well. Some are available though and my keyword (a type of pet) was available in several fairly tolerable combinations.

However, some of these combinations just don’t work well without a hyphen. Everyone knows that famous example Matt Cutts used, right? How Experts-Exchange has to be hyphenated or it can be read as Expert-Sex-Change. Ha, ha.

Does that mean Matt Cutts ever recommended hyphens in domain names? Not that I’m aware of. That video where that example was used is all about URL structure and how Google reads words and the message was that hyphens are used as separators of words while underscores are not. Hardly relevant to domain names.

Some SEO experts claim that whether a domain is hyphenated or not should not really matter. Hmmm, I can see how in theory that could be the case. After all, why would anyone be penalized for a hyphen if everything else is ok. I am guessing that’s the case.

That said, how many popular websites do you know with hyphens in their domain names? I can’t really think of any, to be honest. The ones that have words like “blog” or “forums” in their domain name, for example, seem to avoid hyphens and do well without them.

I still remember the time when hyphenated domain names were hugely popular because people used more extreme SEO tactics to create and promote what was basically MFA (Made for Adsense with some Amazon thrown in that A for good measure 😉 ). I know because I had such sites myself and there was a time when this was viable and productive way to make money online. I promise you, a decade ago this wasn’t even considered spam and it was neither spam nor blackhat SEO. Just a legitimate way to optimize your blog or website for the search engines.

Then the bad guys took over and spammed Google like crazy with sites that had shitty content. And by shitty (pardon my French) I mean either illegal scraper sites or sites that can barely be considered to be in English – those produced by word jumbling algorithms. The first type (scrapers) are illegal. The second type should be.

Using software to mass produce these junk sites means their producers couldn’t care less about what their domain name sounds like to surfers. In an effort to SEO to the extreme, their solution was to use domain names that had 2, 3 or even 4 keywords. These were almost always hyphenated. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe the hyphenated ones were easy to find (so why waste time searching for non-hyphenated ones) or maybe they thought this was in fact better SEO.

The bottom line is: hyphenated domain names have become a trademark of junk websites. And if I can see that as a surfer, I am pretty sure Google sees it as well. After all, the whole point about the Google algorithm is that it tries to be as intelligent as a human being using the web.

One point worth mentioning here. I have very mature domain names that I use which are hyphenated and as far as I can tell they’re doing well on Google. You could say this was proof that hyphens don’t matter but I suspect Google realizes that old websites, more than a decade old, were created in a different environment. Or it could be that they are mature enough for Google to have realized they’re good sites despite the initial flag the hyphens may have raised. I still think a new website that starts out with hyphenated words could suffer.

Which is why – after some deliberation – I decided to go with a non-hyphenated domain name.  That’s quite limiting though because too many combinations are difficult to read, especially if your main word is plural and ends with an S. Forget any second word that start with an H, for example.  Even with a singular form, any second word which begins with a vowel could be trouble. Or not, depending on the sound it creates.

I finally found my combination and will start working on the new project today (WordPress files being uploaded as I’m typing this!) Now, all I need to do is start working on some top notch content and hope for the best!

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