Using Hyphens in Domain Names

Estartit RentalsI’ve noticed a massive trend in the countries of France and Spain for putting tons of hyphens in their domain names. For example a quick search for ‘assurance habitation le moins cher’ comes up with ‘direct-assurance.fr’ and further down the list the horrifically titled ‘assurance-habitation-moins-chere.com’. If I could be bothered I could easily make a massive dent in this market, by going out and registering www.assurancehabitationlemoinschere.com which is currently available for £6.49/year.

I hadn’t really understood really why people do this in these countries, but I have been aware that it is a great opportunity for people like me. For example when my friend Chrisy down on the Costa Brava lost her domain name ‘estartit-rentals.com’ because it never got renewed it was no big deal to go and register ‘estartitrentals.com’, rebuild the site properly and have it outranking the old site within a few weeks, without much effort it stays very high on Google’s first page.

So why do foreigners put hyphens in domain names? I think it is down to the fact that back in 1998 it was very easy to go and register a domain like ‘mortgage-protection-insurance-mortgage-protection.com’ then stuff your H1 tags, Alt tags and meta data with mortgage, protection,insurance etc. and it would work, especially if you pointed 100s of anchor text backlinks at them. Search engines got wise to this practice in about 2001 and the hypenated domains started to disappear from the SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages). The final nail in the coffin was the Google Florida update in November 2003 which killed off the backlink strategy too. I am guessing that because nearly all SEO advice comes from the US, the UK and other English speaking countries, so it just does not get translated into foreign languages that quickly. In the case of France this seems to be about 10 years! Hyphens make no difference to search engine results and peoples perception is that a doamin name littered with hyphens is either spammy or they couldn’t get the version without the hyphens, therefore it must be a second rate site.

You can’t really just compare site for site as there are so many factors that affect rankings, but for me the classic where I live is the unofficial ‘serrechevalier.com’ which hasn’t been updated for about 6 years and still outranks the official ‘serre-chevalier.com’ that has had continual work done on it. (for the phrase ‘serre chevalier’)

I like this comment on the excellent SEOMoz site too:

Reject Hyphens and Numbers
Both hyphens and numbers make it hard to give your domain name verbally and falls down on being easy to remember or type. I’d suggest not using spelled-out or roman numerals in domains, as both can be confusing and mistaken for the other.

The SEOMoz site also talks about using your URL as branding too. I wasn’t so keen on this idea, but now I can see how this is becoming more and more relevant as Google is putting more weight on the experience of the client, rather than just serving up an over SEO’d page. Here’s what SEOMoz say:

Set Yourself Apart with a Brand
Using a unique moniker is a great way to build additional value with your domain name. A “brand” is more than just a combination of words, which is why names like mortgageforyourhome.com or shoesandboots.com aren’t as compelling as branded names like bankrate.com or lendingtree.com. SEOmoz itself is a good example – “SEO” does a good job of explaining the industry we’re in and creating expectations, while “moz” gives a web association, and an association with being free, open, and community-driven.

So here is my advice about choosing a domain name:

  • If you have a strong brand already choose yourbrandname.com do not chose your-brandname.com
  • If you have a keyphrase that is highly profitable choose yourkeyword.com do not chose your-keyword.com
  • If someone in a noisy bar asked you your domain name, make sure it is one that you could easily tell them without them writing it down wrong!

As always there are no hard and fast rules, do what you think seems natural, but to me hyphens don’t seem natural unless your domain could be read wrongly, for example ‘expertsexchange.com’.

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Rick Lomas
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