Web copywriters have to straddle two worlds – one of robots and one of humans. In writing SEO copy, we aim to excite search engines with juicy keywords and smooth talk people with salacious sentences. We want our words to be intelligible to both, and our success is measured by ranking and conversions.
For the most part, it is like jogging with your pants around your ankles; it’s difficult, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately achievable.
But there’s one area, like tall grass for people shuffling with their pants down, which has web copywriters tripping over themselves – the apostrophe.
Before I explain why, let me emphasise why the apostrophe is important.
For me personally, it is a cornerstone of the English language. Sure, you’ve got all the vowels and consonants, but without a proper apostrophe, all that can be reduced to nonsense.
An apostrophe is the difference between this:
I realise that I’m in the minority. Many people, if not most, care little for the apostrophe; in a constantly accelerating world it’s another tap on the keyboard, another few seconds spent looking at the screen.
But as a writer, I feel impelled to defend my turf, to help people avoid talking about moisture-enthused dragons when they’re trying to point out rain.
Unfortunately, writing web copy has brought me into conflict with my predilection for the apostrophe. Where I would usually insert apostrophes with abandon (when called for), when using keywords that contain apostrophes I find myself hamstrung, caught between the need to rank well and the need to uphold the very moral fibre of the English language.
Let me illustrate.
As many a web copywriter will know, a ‘useful’ tool for writing online content is the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. It allows you to search a keyword for popularity (how often it is typed into Google) and suggests similar searches that may be more or less popular. But its usefulness is limited.
Let’s say you’re working for a client who’s selling something for Father’s Day (note the apostrophe). Being the trained copywriter you are, you go to the Keyword Tool, only to find this:
Now, to be clear, the correct spelling is “Father’s Day,” with an apostrophe. The vast majority of the internet, it seems, get it wrong. There are probably two reasons for this – people are unaware the apostrophe exists in Father’s Day, or they approximate search terms for quicker searching.
“Why is this a problem?” you may be asking. Because, when it comes to writing web copy, exact match keywords matter. Despite all the talk of co-citation, intelligent algorithms and worthwhile content, having the right amount of specific keywords on the page remains extremely important.
This creates a problem for the copywriter. Does s/he remove the apostrophe to pander to the Keyword Tool’s suggestion, thereby chipping away at the foundations of the English language? Does s/he take a stand and leave it, thereby jeopardising the client’s search engine rankings?
Answering this question requires asking another: Do apostrophes actually make a difference to search results?
The problem with the Google Keyword Tool is that it only shows what people search for; it doesn’t show what Google displays when a term is entered.
In the interests of helping our hypothetical copywriter (who, you’ll remember, is preparing to write some copy on Father’s Day) I conducted a very basic experiment comparing the Google Results pages for “Father’s Day” and “Fathers Day” respectively.
At first it seems as though the results are the same; the top three results are from the same sites. This is understandable, as these pages are on large sites, assumedly with high page authority.
But the image results below this are different, at least marginally. (Going to the actual image search results page (SERP) shows that the two searches yield markedly different results.)
Underneath this are more results, and though the results are similar, they are not the same. The results are even more varied on page 2 of the SERPs (try it for yourself), where the first result for “Fathers Day” does not even appear on the corresponding “Father’s Day” search page. The difference is even more drastic on page 3.
From this (admittedly, very small) sample it’s clear that apostrophes have at least some effect on results. Though writing for “Father’s Day” rather than the more popular (but incorrect) “Fathers Day” won’t leave our copywriter’s client invisible from the SERPs, it will have an effect.
This, quite simply, is bad for the copywriter, and bad for copywriting more generally. It means that we can’t commit to perfect grammar, to sparkling copy that would have our English teachers beaming.
We are left wracked by indecision, forced into a situation where the either the client or the English language is going to suffer. And because the former pays us, it’s going to be the latter that we compromise.
Get it together, Google
To my mind, Google’s got a lot to answer for here. By providing different results for “Father’s Day” and “Fathers Day,” it provides impetus for web copywriters to deliberately misspell the term to increase conversions for clients.
Of course, some blame has to be put on the 165,000 people globally who don’t spell it correctly, but that message would be harder to spread.
Google is in a position to do something. If it treated the two spellings identically, it would allow copywriters to spell correctly. And of course, this applies to other words affected by apostrophes – Mother’s Day, Bob’s Diner, Mum’s Papier-Mache, men’s shoes, women’s socks etc.
This would be of benefit to copywriters everywhere. It would allow them to focus on creating content that is exciting, accurate, and informative. This in turn would benefit those who turn to Google for answers, searching out the truth.
Even if this can’t happen, perhaps Matt Cutts, head of webspam at Google, could do a presentation on exactly how much apostrophes affect search results. That way, at least, copywriters can make an informed decision on how to write.
Personally, I hope that the bigger change is made.
It’s time, Google, to treat the apostrophe with some respect.