Underscores, optimization & arms races

Eventually, people wanted to have the whole title of their article show up in the web address. Part of this was just because it looked cool, but some folks had started to suspect that having those words in the address might help a blog post rank higher on Google. (Google was still a smaller player in the overall web search market at the time, but it was already by far the most popular search engine amongst internet geeks.)

But here’s the thing: web addresses can’t have spaces in them. To include a full title with spaces in a web address for a blog, the spaces would either have to be removed (ugly!) or converted into something equivalent. Since we were one of the first to encounter this issue, our team designed to have our content management system use underscores, based on the rationale that underscores were the character that most closely resembled a blank space.

The end result? Anybody who used our tools could write a a blog post entitled “My Great Cookie Recipe” and it would live at an address that looked like example.com/2005/04/my_great_cookie_recipe.html. By contrast, the WordPress team thought that hyphens looked better, so blog posts published on their tool would look more like example.com/2005/04/my-great-cookie-recipe. Sure, these different tools made slightly different choices about which character to use, but such a subtle distinction couldn’t be meaningful, right?

As it would turn out, we’d stumbled across a harbinger of how the entire web was about to change.

Source: Underscores, Optimization & Arms Races – Humane Tech – Medium

How hyphens vs. underscores kickstarted the race to optimise for, and game the systems of, the web’s biggest players.