So on Friday (6th May) Google decided to give details about the recent Panda algorithm update to disgruntled webmasters. They detailed what “counts as a high quality site”, the inverse of which is obviously a low quality site. They kindly provided a list of questions that they would ask of a website – all of which are clues to the content of the algorithm itself.
Today I am going to focus only on one of these questions: “Does this article have any spelling… errors?” Myself coming from an English Language and Linguistics background, this immediately sent alarm bells ringing. Can Google punish sites for misspelling!?
Prescriptivism Vs Descriptivism
I won’t go into immense detail, but there are two broad approaches to language use and particularly the tuition of language – that of prescriptivism and that of descriptivism. Prescriptivism refers to the notion that correct language use (spelling and grammar) should be prescribed. Descriptivism, on the other hand, is the theory that we should embrace language and language use for what it is (incorrect spellings and grammatical use should be studied rather than corrected).
Are Google Prescriptivists?
If Google are now to penalise sites for incorrect spellings then this surely makes them prescriptivists. There are problems with a search engine adopting this approach though. Language is continually evolving and changing – how will Google cope with such change? Can webmasters and copywriters no longer use slang terms, or will they be penalised for doing so? Which dictionary is Google going to draw from? Words are of course added to dictionaries as their usage becomes widespread – “lol” is one such example, but this change only occurred after years of use both on and offline.
In addition though, accepted spellings of words can change over time. One that really gets my goat is “of” instead of “have” – as in “I should of bought a Mac” – technically it is ‘incorrect’ but its use is again so widespread that you have to question if it can really be considered as such. Ultimately we use language to convey meaning and if we can still easily decipher the meaning then is there really a problem? Google obviously thinks that there is.
Stylistic use of Misspellings
We must also consider that people will often deliberately misspell words in order to convene to a particular style, for comedy effect or to appeal to a particular audience. A common example of this is in the title of this article – the use of a “z” instead of an “s” when signalling the use of a plural. Companies or websites might do this to appeal to a younger, more ‘hip’ audience but will such behaviour now result in poor rankings for their site?
Phonetic spellings are not uncommon too, but again these are technically ‘inaccurate’. For those not in the know a phonetic spelling would be to spell a word as it sounds. ‘Oh em gee’ is one that I’ve seen bandied around recently, though this is slightly unique in that it spells out three letters rather than a word.
The chances are that Google will only penalise typos and clear misspellings – it would be unwise for them to do any more than this. I know that Google have made use of Corpus Linguistics and I would imagine that they have some talented linguists amongst their ranks, who would frown upon the idea that a search engine should determine the face of the English language. I would also imagine that this is a fairly insignificant ranking factor – if you consistently misspell on your website then your rankings may suffer, but I doubt that the odd spelling mistake will make a significant difference.
The Opinionated Bit
This may be controversial, but I agree with Google penalising some sites for poor spelling and/or grammar (though the latter will be particularly hard to enforce if the technology is anything like that used by MS Word). The emphasis here on ‘some sites’ is important.
If a site is supposed to be formal, professional and/or related to education then the language use should really reflect this approach, but if a site is more colloquial and informal then the spiders should chill out a little bit! This latter statement should apply to social media and blogs in particular – nobody’s personal blog should be penalised for poor spelling – this is where language variation and change is perhaps at its forefront – Google should not be given the authority to stifle that change.
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If you need help with your spelling, or just need some decent SEO copy contact Piranha where we have expert SEO Copywriters (including yours truly) who can help you out!