As a self-confessed grammar geek, I’m frequently dismayed by the sloppy standard of writing I am continually confronted with throughout the course of the seven days a week I spend exploring the weird and wonderful world wide web. Whether it’s a blog post, a tweet or even a company website, it seems that a lax approach to grammar has become the norm – even, most shockingly of all, among professional copywriters I’ve hired. The most frequent offender in the huge array of rudimentary English errors is the misplaced or missing apostrophe, a grammar violation which winds me up so much that Stuart Tofts and Kevin Gibbons make a point of including one in every email they send me, just so that they can see my reaction.
Not long ago, in a moment of above average exasperation, I sent out a tweet which said:
So imagine my satisfaction when the following correction from Google was brought to my attention not long after:
We’re all used to Google correcting misspellings, but this was the first time I had seen it suggest correct punctuation. Interestingly, it has not automatically displayed results for “women’s clothing” with a different option for “search instead for womens clothing”, as it usually does with misspellings. Furthermore, doing the same search but for “mens” and “childrens” did not produce a “Did you mean” suggestion.
A quick glance down the search results for the search seen above showed sites with title tags using both correct and incorrect punctuation ranking for both terms (though title tags are obviously not the only consideration!). However, changing the search from “womens” to “women’s” did change which websites appeared on the first page – so it does seem to have some bearing on rankings. The top ranking websites were the same, but lower on the first page the results were different – meaning that some sites (Debenhams, for example) lost out on a first page ranking. The humble apostrophe makes a difference!
The Google Keyword Tool does recognise a small difference in search volumes for the two versions, but the number of searches for each is roughly equal. So why is Google making this correction in the search results?
This interesting video from Google shows the process used by Google engineers when they make algorithm changes – which they apparently do on a daily basis:
The video explains the rationale behind the “did you mean” suggestions: sites with misspellings are typically of a poorer quality. So as far as I can see, it’s a logical assumption that sites with a poor standard of grammar should be treated with the same approach.
In the light of the Panda update, we’re all getting used to the idea that Google is cracking down on low-quality sites, placing increasing emphasis on high-quality content that provides value for its users (the majority of whom are also Google’s users). Of course, many people are lazy when it comes to typing terms into Google, and will omit punctuation such as apostrophes because it takes marginally less time to type, and because they feel it makes little difference. But I would argue that the presence of poor grammar on a website could end up being a negative quality indicator because it diminishes a user’s trust in that website.
Google does use comments from real users in addressing problems of identifying what counts as a low-quality website. See this excerpt from a Wired.com interview with Google:
Wired.com: How do you recognize a shallow-content site? Do you have to wind up defining low quality content?
Singhal: That’s a very, very hard problem that we haven’t solved, and it’s an ongoing evolution how to solve that problem. We wanted to keep it strictly scientific, so we used our standard evaluation system that we’ve developed, where we basically sent out documents to outside testers. Then we asked the raters questions like: “Would you be comfortable giving this site your credit card? Would you be comfortable giving medicine prescribed by this site to your kids?”
Cutts: There was an engineer who came up with a rigorous set of questions, everything from. “Do you consider this site to be authoritative? Would it be okay if this was in a magazine? Does this site have excessive ads?” Questions along those lines.
Singhal: And based on that, we basically formed some definition of what could be considered low quality. In addition, we launched the Chrome Site Blocker [allowing users to specify sites they wanted blocked from their search results] earlier , and we didn’t use that data in this change. However, we compared and it was 84 percent overlap [between sites downloaded by the Chrome blocker and downgraded by the update]. So that said that we were in the right direction.
The incorporation of user feedback into algorithms was also confirmed on the official Google Webmaster Central Blog. Personally, if I visit a company website and the first thing I notice is that it’s riddled with poor grammar, it puts me right off that company. My most likely course of action would be to go back to the search results and find a competitor with a well-written website – and I know I’m not alone in this.
I lament falling standards of English and argue that proper use of grammar DOES matter. Poor grammar is unprofessional and makes a company look sloppy, as though they just don’t care. If they have that kind of attitude towards their professional image – if they can’t even be bothered to get their English right – what might their attitude be to customer service? How can I trust them with my business? Google wants the best results for its users, websites they can place trust and confidence in – and part of that means companies who know how to present themselves in a professional way. It’s only one step from correcting misspellings to correcting grammar abuse.
So it’s certainly not impossible that Google may pay more careful attention to grammar in the future. If that happens, using an apostrophe or not could mean the difference between ranking competitively for a term and not; it could also mean that a PPC ad, with apostrophes dropped to keep within the character limit, might not appear on the searches you want it to appear on. If there are any algorithm updates involving grammar in the offing, they are still only in their infancy; but if you ask me, this would be a good time for online marketers to sharpen up their grammar skills and recommend that their clients do the same.
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