When doing a site audit of your website, or preparing new content, the question may come up whether or not to hyphenate (use a dash “-“) words and phrases. Does Google treat hyphenated words differently? Should you write fast-acting or fast acting? As with most things Google, the answer is murky, but we dig deep to find the answers and deliver the best practices.
How Does Google Search Treat Hyphens and Dashes?
The first question to answer is how Google actually treats hyphens and dashes. Recent and ongoing changes in Google’s AI and search algorithms continue to move away from static metrics like keyword and phrase. Search intent is much more important, and is covered by things like the BERT algorithm among the hundreds of signals Google uses to determine your search performance.
Otherwise, it appears that Google treats hyphens/dashes as spaces. One thing to keep in mind when making decisions about specific keywords. Do they read the same with a space or dash? Or are there other considerations?
Hypens/Dashes or Underscores in URLs/Domains
A specific subset of this question is the effect of SEO with dashes or underscores in your URLs and slugs. John Mueller, the Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, says “doesn’t really have a preference.” Google’s own simple URL structure guide however, says:
We recommend that you use hyphens (-) instead of underscores (_) in your URLs.
Google Search Console Help
We recommend following the hyphen convention, not simply because it’s specifically written out by Google, but because it also looks more appealing. But that’s subjective, let’s get back to the question of hyphens in keywords!
Hyphenated Keywords in Search
One question we come up is whether Google is treating hyphenated and non-hyphenated keywords the same. Google has diluted match types, meaning that exact matches are no longer exact but support close variants. These close variants are becoming less and less exact, so the question is whether the same applies to SEO.
Consider user behavior when making a decision about using a dash. Typically, people will not type in the dash in search, so consider whether it’s necessary. Also, a quick search of the term in question will show you whether Google suggests a different spelling variant, and which variants show up most often in results.
Hyphenate Keywords For SEO Or Not?
When deciding whether or not to hyphenate a keyword, take into mind:
- Is the keyword in question part of a heading or paragraph?
- What is the typical grammatical usage of the keyword?
- Does the word mean the same with and without a hyphen?
If your keyword is only found in paragraphs and not headings, you can choose whichever option is most visually appealing. The page content being scraped is being analyzed by advanced AI that prioritizes grammar and intent over specific keyword spellings and variants.
Coming back to grammar, how are others writing it? If Google is firing an error suggesting you spell it a different way, that should answer your question (unless, of course, the phrase has different meaning with or without a hyphen. In that case, use the one that makes grammatical sense.
Let’s come back to John Mueller. He addresses a still unanswered post on this topic at MOZ in 2017, stating:
We don’t special-case “-“, sometimes they’re seen as reciprocal synonyms, sometimes not. Eg “S-EO” is not really “SEO”
— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) June 7, 2017
It’s All About The Meaning and Intent
Like with most answers to specific SEO questions, we don’t have a completely clear answer. Yes, a hyphen can (and does in practice) result in different results. The reason is that Google is trying to identify the intent of your search, instead of simply returning a result of pages that matched the search term you entered.
Hyphenated Words and SEO Best Practices
That being said, it doesn’t look like there’s any negative repercussions from using them. That seems to be the underlying question, and the result that search engine optimization professionals are trying to avoid. Use hyphens where they are grammatically appropriate, and if you have design considerations, know that you’re likely safe unless the phrase in question has a different meaning or intent with the hyphen used or not. Google is moving away from legacy metrics like static keywords to determine your search performance, and instead are putting more and more emphasis on grammar and intent, looking at the whole of your page and site content, as opposed to a specific hyphenated keyword in isolation.