By: Rory Kennett-Lister on 02-05-2013 in Content Strategy, Fun, Google, Search, SEO

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.

pant down running

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:

It's rain - with apostrophe

And this:

Its rain - without apostrophe

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.

Indecision! Indecision!

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:

father's day keyword

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?

Devilish Detail

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.

father's day SERPfathers day SERP

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.

it's time
  • http://www.lattimore.id.au/ Alistair Lattimore

    It’s certainly an ongoing issue and it is one that has some mixed signals from Google also.

    Google added the ability to filter search results by reading level back in 2010. While reading levels measured by algorithms like Flesch–Kincaid don’t take into account spelling and grammar, Google are clearly aware of those kinds of concepts.

    Amit Singhal wrote in May 2011 after Google Panda was released the traits of high quality websites [1]. In that article there were a handful of points that directly go toward what I’d consider copywriting quality:

    * Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
    * How much quality control is done on content?
    * Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
    * Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?

    Matt Cutts delivered a Google Webmasters video in August 2011 with a question by AJ Kohn asking whether spelling and grammar were a ranking factor [2] to which he said it isn’t but it makes sense that it could be.

    Anecdotally Matt mentions that sites with better quality control with regard to spelling/grammar also tend to have higher PageRank. That makes sense that people would be more likely to link to a higher quality site than a lower quality site, which would help with Google Panda algorithm issues per Amit Singhal’s post above as well.

    I’d be inclined to focus on writing well, using the correct spelling and grammar in general. Ultimately if users search [fathers day] or [father’s day], your website will rank if the site has the appropriate signals – irrespective of the apostrophe.

    [1] http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2011/05/more-guidance-on-building-high-quality.html

    [2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoFf6Kn4K98

  • http://www.kwasistudios.com/about/team/rory-kennett-lister/ Rory Kennett-Lister

    Hi Alistair,

    Thanks for the great feedback, and for the sources. They’re really good.

    It’s interesting that Google are aware of things like reading level, but hasn’t taken an active approach to grammar. Personally, I’d like to see them to be more proactive. But you make a good point; it’s probably just worth writing well anyway.

    Thanks again for your input!

  • http://twitter.com/RoryKL Rory Kennett-Lister

    Hi Alistair,

    Thanks for the great feedback, and for the sources. They’re really good.

    It’s interesting that Google are aware of things like reading level, but hasn’t taken an active approach to grammar. Personally, I’d like to see them to be more proactive. But you make a good point; it’s probably just worth writing well anyway.

    Thanks again for your input!

  • http://www.kwasistudios.com/ Woj Kwasi

    Thanks for the comments Alistair! Agree – focusing on quality will be better in the long run (for both search engines & people).

  • Maria Boustead

    I am facing this exact quandary in writing a post for Valentine’s Day. Similar to your example above, Google prefers “Valentines Day” over the correct “Valentine’s Day” so I wrote my post without the apostrophe to appease the SEO gods. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to publish it; I just care too much about grammar and I also respect my readers too much to have to make them read that abomination over and over. I switched my keyword phrase to “Valentine date ideas”, which also doesn’t sound quite right, but at least let’s me sidestep the apostrophe issue. I’m already dreading Mothers Day…