Does it make sense to include hyphens in your domain? Or, more to the point, is it better for your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts if they are — or aren’t — there?

Many affiliates face this problem at least once; those who buy and develop websites on a large scale face it almost daily.

That’s because it’s an extremely common situation: You want to buy a terrific domain name that’s perfect for your niche, with rich, juicy keywords and low competition. But the .com domain for those words is already taken, either in use or parked by someone else.

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So, your options are to buy the domain under a less attractive suffix, like .net or .info, or slightly alter the domain name using hyphens. If you can’t have, maybe it makes sense to buy

There are two perspectives you should consider when answering this question, and both relate directly to your website’s success: SEO and branding.

SEO and domain name hyphens

Before you go buying, first consider what effect those hyphens might have on your site’s SEO performance.

Your domain is the name of your whole site, and it’s the most important element in your search rankings. Your domain should be as clear a representation of your exact niche as possible. Given that importance, does it matter if those perfect keywords are separated by a hyphen or two?

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What does Google think about that? For Google’s part, whether or not hyphens in domains makes a difference has never been made precisely clear. But it’s widely believed — and SEO results will bear this out — that domain name hyphens are simply ignored by Google, and neither hurt nor help your search engine performance.

The truth is, using hyphens in your domain can actually give you an SEO advantage — if usually a short-lived one. As marketer Patrick Hare points out, “if SEO is the only goal you have for your website, a hyphenated domain name can work wonders.

“It still takes time to rank for competitive keyword phrases, but you can get a bit of a lift from the domain name’s match to inbound anchor text pointing at the site,” Hare writes. But he also admits that those looking for more than SEO — those also concerned with branding — should “consider the acquisition of a site that has no hyphens in the domain name.”

Branding and domain name hyphens

Ultimately, a site with hyphens probably suffers in branding what it gains in SEO.

For starters, it simply doesn’t look good, and it can cheapen a brand’s impact with some more web-savvy prospects. Given a choice, most people would prefer to visit, not we just don’t really trust those hyphens. Think about it: Do any of your favorite, most trusted sites have hyphens in the domains?

Probably not, because, as SEOmoz points out, most of those big name, everyday sites rely on visitors being able to just type in the domain name, and hyphens hinder that ease of access. The same trouble accompanies numbers in domain names — should they be spelt out? Or not? Arguments have been made on either side, but the reality is, you’re smarter to remove the ambiguity altogether and create domains where visitors won’t have to make that decision.

There are also copyright issues. If you’re registering a hyphenated version of an already-well known domain, that domain may be copyrighted, and your attempt to market the same phrase could actually be in violation of that law. If you do decide to go this route, cover all your bases and investigate all other relevant sites closely.

So, if you care about branding (which has become, in this age of social media, much more important than before, and closely related to SEO), you’ll want to avoid hyphens and strive after domains that are keyword-only.

Final question: Branding or SEO?

Still not sure if you want to include a hyphen in your domain? Consider this final question, then: Are you “gaming” the system by choosing your domain keywords, or does it tie into your brand? If it’s for branding, then go with a more professional domain, without a hyphen — you should be able to find related alternatives.

And if it turns out you’re just looking for a great SEO domain to build a quick site for quick profits — then you probably won’t mind the branding limitations that hyphens cause.

But if you’re in that latter category, also be aware of this fact: you’re at serious risk for a future algorithm change, anyway. Google is known for changing its system to discourage all sorts of “gaming”, and trying to monetize a niche you’re not really interested in will probably fall into that category sooner rather later. After all, Google, doesn’t discourage hyphens now — but who can predict what’ll happen in a few years?

Sound off!
That’s our assessment, but not everyone’s going to agree. If you have thoughts on the topic, let us know how you feel. Maybe some of your favorite domains have hyphens? Maybe branding isn’t nearly as important as SEO, in your opinion? Let us know! We can take the heat!

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