Commentary

Is Google Changing The Queen's English?

Queen Elizabeth/Schmidt

So you dump a ton of money into optimizing your Web site to guarantee specific keywords rank at the top of search query results. But there's one problem. Google wants to tell you how to spell, especially if you're in the U.K. Well, not really, but sort of. And it could cost companies thousands of dollars to correct. Let me explain.

Actually, it's an interesting lesson in linguistics and how words morph from one spelling into another as societies change and evolve. In the past, this morphing took hundreds of years; in the Internet age, change moves much faster. And, there's no doubt the Internet and Google, Microsoft Bing and, perhaps, Yahoo will contribute to future transitions.

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When it comes to search, language nuances come into play. These differences are noticeable between Spanish in Mexico and Spanish in Spain, French in Quebec and French in France, or English in Britain and English in America.

The spelling of a word signals to Google where the searcher resides. Another consideration includes the computer's IP address.

For example, when someone searches for "optimize" with a "z," not an "s," Google determines the searcher must be in the U.S., not the U.K., and he or she would rather see the American spelling of a word. David Harry, founder of Reliable-SEO, points out a ton of spelling difference even between Canada and the U.S., such as colour vs. color, and behaviour vs. behavior, respectively.

But SEO experts believe that Google has recently begun to put more weight on signals determining query results based on aggregated searches for terms and keywords, rather than relying on a geo-targeted language-related signal. Harry says that at some point it appears the "z" spelling of "optimize" overtook the "s" spelling in "optimise," especially in the United Kingdom.

Juxtapose the word "optimization" and "optimisation" in Google Insights and it appears that searches on the British spelling from people in England and Scotland have declined during the past few months.

What if you have been paying a SEO company $2,000 per month for two years to get a term Google has now taken away by changing its algorithms to give more weight to aggregate searches vs. the actual query? Multiply that by about 200,000 pages and the investment could become huge. A company will need to retarget all its pages, which doesn't happen over night.

"Now you have lost the revenue to pay people, such as Web developers and SEO experts to gain rankings," says Harry. "It could be a real kick in the teeth. This likely is the motivation for the outcry, [rather] than the abuse of the U.K. language, similar to Americans telling us how to spell."

If these assumptions are correct, the trend could provide insight into how search engines will contribute to the change of language. But it all turns out to be just a bug in the system, according to Google. "We recently introduced a change to the spell correction feature on the google.co.uk domain," says a spokesperson. "This change introduced a bug where we were suggesting American English spelling refinements. We have temporarily rolled back the change while we fix the problem." Well, if nothing else, this bugaboo provides an interesting opportunity to see how search engines can change the world -- or if not the world, at least our language.

1 comment about "Is Google Changing The Queen's English?".
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  1. Peter Handley, January 18, 2010 at 10:13 a.m.

    Interestingly, although Google Insights suggests that optimization has jumped ahead of optimisation in the UK market (in terms of searchers looking for this term), this isn't backed up using research that can be done in PPC volume data with Google's own traffic estimation tool, which for local (UK) volumes for Search Engine Optimisation is 33,100 and Search Engine Optimization was 22,200 - meaning if there was an increase in the use of the z version, it was only slight.

    The biggest frustration with this was the lack of choice - it forced you to use the spelling without the normal offering of "did you mean...". This meant that the results Google was returning had a heavy emphasis to sites optimised for the US market, making the results substantially less relevant to the UK market than they should have been.

    Fortunately all the instances of this that I was tracking/found have now been resolved, but it is a potential issue for the future if this was a test of something that will have a bigger impact at that time

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