Google’s Treatment of Underscores vs Hyphens – The Confusion

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Back in July, Matt Cutts made the announcement at the WordPress Wordcamp that underscores are now treated as spaces in Google.

Blogs, webmaster communities, and SEO professionals rejoiced – but why does it seem Google DOES NOT treat underscores and hyphens the same.

Do a multiple word search with hyphens and underscores between the words and you’ll see what I mean.  If you’re lazy, a sample is done for you below:

  • Results 1 – 10 of about 502,000 for “search engine journal”.
  • Results 1 – 10 of about 502,000 for “search-engine-journal”.
  • Results 1 – 5 of 5 for “search_engine_journal”.

Turns out, Matt Cutts didn’t make the annoucnement.  In August 2007, Matt made a post on his blog that read: “some people thought that underscores are the same as dashes to Google now, and I didn’t quite say that in the talk. I said that we had someone looking at that now. So I wouldn’t consider it a completely done deal at this point.”

So what does all this mean? Google DOES NOT treat underscores and hyphens the same – underscores are currently not counted as spaces.

I recommend making a new site using hyphens in the URL as does Matt. He also said, “But note that I also said if you’d already made your site with underscores, it probably wasn’t worth trying to migrate all your urls over to dashes.”

Hopefully, this clears everything up, because there seems to be quite a bit of confusion.  It should also be pointed out that underscores and hyphens are not the only ranking factor and it could be very likely a site with underscores outranking sites with hyphens (if they have other SEO factors that thus place them higher – such as more links, older domain, better titles, etc).

Further reading:

Dave Rigotti is the owner of
Freezing Hot, and internet marketing company that specializes in small business seo and ppc management.

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  • Yep, thanks for pointing that out. I remember at the time of Matt’s statement most thought it was a done deal. Out of habit, I use dashes instead of underscores in my naming.

    Hmmmm, I wonder how long Google is going to keep “someone looking at that now” as it is the end of November.

  • Marcel

    So how do you come to the conclusion that querying with a phrase is the same as ranking with that phrase in the URL? If monkeys walk does that mean everything that walks is a monkey? Wow.

  • Hi Dave.
    Totally agree, I read that post some months ago, but as you say, Google returns very different results with underscores, hyphens and spaces, what it means that things are still the same.

    Maybe the people at Google are quite busy to change the algorithms, the best option is still use hyphens.

  • The might that is Google, dominator of all things internet, lord of all search. Still cant figure out a _ from a -. I smell conspiracy, i think it has something to do with a grassy knoll and the CIA, or could it be that Google has reached its limit, this is surely the end of google, bring back altavista! ­čÖé

  • If people actually read what Google said back in July, you would have known they were just thinking about the underscore thing. It’s amazing how our industry puts words into what other’s may say. I didn’t see any confusion at all back then.

  • Come on this subject has been for so long. Why not lets just face it and use hypens instead of arguing about this topic and hoping one day underscore will be treated the same.Cheerz

  • well, as per my experience, using underscores or hyphens doesn’t make any HUGE difference in your rankings. use hyphens or underscore, google actually treat them as two separate words.

  • Steve

    The underscore has been used for years to SEPARATE words, hypens to JOIN words, why can’t they adhere to the norm. I wish Google would just disappear into the ether or better still up their own…..