The rule of thumb is that you should abstain from the use of hyphens in the domain name. Unless you absolutely need to. We’ll talk about why this rule of thumb exists and in what exceptional cases you might consider adding the hyphens in domains.
#1. Google’s stance
Google doesn’t have a penalty for using hyphens.
As SEO specialists, we don’t have a clear and detailed guide from Google that would elaborate on various matters concerning SEO. Thus, we have to base our opinions on statements from Google representatives and case studies done online.
We can read this post from Matt Cutts. In it, he clearly states that in order “to answer a common question, Google doesn’t algorithmically penalize for dashes in the URL.” You can read more about it in this article. Though the post from Matt Cutts goes back to 2005, we can safely assume that Google hasn’t changed its approach toward hyphens in domains since then as there haven’t been any changes in the way that Google treats sites with hyphens.
So, Google has no problem with your using hyphens. But…
#2. Spammy history of exact-match domains
The problem starts when we look into the rise and fall of exact-match domains.
Several years prior to 2012, webmasters started creating the domain names that were exact matches to the keywords they wanted to rank for. The rationale behind this technique was that a site with an exact-match domain name would be the most relevant resource in the respective super-narrow niche.
However, this method quickly mutated with webmasters registering and buying domains for each specific keyword. Naturally, they didn’t intend to develop those domains as fully-fledged businesses. Instead, an SEO would just create a number of pages with spun content and use them to channel traffic to a “money page”.
At this point, whenever users came across a link like this “domain.com/best-strawberry-fertilizers”, they immediately knew that there would be a crappy spun site on the other side. This started significantly hurting the user experience Google was delivering. And the hyphens in domains was a clear signal that Google could use to mark such sites.
That’s why, in 2012, Google implemented the EMD (Exact Match Domain) update. It adjusted the weight of the “domain name” factor from 100 to 20. As a result, the sites with the exact-match domain names went down in their rankings and it became useless to try and gain high rankings just through the use of this technique.
Importantly, we know that Google didn’t institute the penalty for this approach, i.e the weight for this factor isn’t negative.
However, these developments have resulted in the two consequences:
A. It doesn’t make sense to register exact-match domains anymore since you won’t be able to gain much from it.
B. If you choose to create a domain name with hyphens between the words, lots of users might get the “blast from the past” and immediately identify you as a spammy link. Naturally, this will result in their unwillingness to go to your site and interact with your brand overall. This will hurt your SEO efforts a lot in the long term.
#3. Low virality of domains with hyphens
Though we mainly interact with websites online and we don’t ordinarily share their names in spoken language with others, there might be situations when somebody wants to talk about your company.
In such a case, they would feel extremely awkward because they would need to convey that your domain name includes a hyphen every time they tell somebody about you. And even if they do communicate this information, there’s no guarantee that their interlocutors will remember that there are dashes in there.
As a result, folks might still type in your name without any hyphens. In which case, they either won’t be able to find any website at all or they will go to your competitor who uses a “hyphen-less” name.
#4. Potential legal issues
Should you create a hyphenated TLD (top-level domain, i.e. you domain name) while there already existed a non-hyphenated brand, the other company might come after you with a lawsuit regarding the trademark protection.
Thus, if you are serious about your business, you should always act conservatively and preemptively eliminate any threats to your sustainable development path.
#5. Exceptional cases when you can use hyphenated domain names
Notably, the situation should be truly exceptional for you to consider whether you can use a hyphen. Otherwise, you should always stick with non-hyphenated domain names.
A. Your brand originally uses a hyphen, so it’s vital for you to assure consistency in your branding.
Here’s an example of the brand that originally had a hyphen and decided to retain it in the domain naming as well.
B. You must use a hyphen in order to prevent any misreading by humans
(Search engines will be OK since they’ll parse the actual name of your company from the title and description tags on your main page.)
Here’s an example: A person whose name is Simon Scourts wants to create a personal website. Should he use the TDL as www.simonscourts.com, then there’s a strong probability that users will read it as “Simons Courts” which will cause ambiguity. Using a hyphen in this case fixes the problem and the person can clearly community their name as in www.simon-scourts.com.
Throughout our research, we managed to identify only these two exceptions. If you’ve stumbled upon any other must-have use cases, make sure to add some info in the comments. We’ll respond with detailed considerations with regard to your specific case.
#6. Additional comments on using hyphens in domains
In addition to the main notes above, we want to share the following:
A. Domain names vs sub-pages
It’s totally OK to use hyphens in subdomains. For instance, a URL like this www.mysite com/my-category/post-name will be totally in line with both technical requirements and “unspoken code of conduct”.
B. Underscores can be used only in sub-pages
You can’t use underscores in the domain names, but you can freely utilize them to name your sub-pages. However, hyphens seem a much better option to choose. In particular, WordPress views the dashes as the best option for their URL.
C. Don’t use dots
Though you can purchase a domain and create a sub-domain for it, which will result in the second dot for your domain name, it makes perfect sense to steer clear of them in your naming.
This is a goofy approach to doing business. And as life shows, brands that decide go this path end up redoing their branding from scratch or buying the non-goofy domain for their use. An example would be something like www.simonsc.ourts.com.
D. Debate over using hyphens in domains with 3+ words
You might find yourself debating the need to use a hyphen when you want to assure readability for your domain name with 3+ words in it. A much better option might be to reconsider naming from scratch because a 3-word domain name might be hard to remember in the first place. Using hyphens or moving forward without them won’t help you to attain uniqueness, appeal and memorability you need to succeed.
It doesn’t make sense to use hyphens in your domain name. However, there are two exceptions which we covered above. The main problem with using hyphens is the scammy scent your brand will give off after an epoch of exact-match domains that wrapped up in 2012.