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March 8, 2007

Good Grammar Costs Nothing

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Bruce Clay has a casual Friday policy where us no good hoodlums are allowed to show up to work in jeans and our favorite industry-related T-shirts (sadly, Bruce still requires me to wear shoes, or at least socks. I’m a barefoot kind of girl). Susan’s most favorite shirt isn’t her The Lisa shirt; it’s her Good Grammar Costs Nothing shirt. I laugh at Susan, but I agree with the shirt.

Michael Gray had a post today entitled Do Spelling and Grammar Matter and asks, "does Google care about spelling, grammar and reading levels?"

I think it does play a part in your rankings. For instance, Graywolf writes in an experimental post:

"Hih eferyone. Wilcome abroad de Wult Desney Wurld Eckspress Munorail. Wesa nuw embarkeng un e seenic jurney uver de Hiway en de Ski. Wesa bi travellin nunstop dierectly tu de Megic Kingdum, seew wesa esk det yousa remane seatid et ull tymes end nu eatin, drinken, smokeing, er flashin photograpin pleeze."

[Word is SO mad at me right now!]

Now, as a user, you can read that. You know it’s just more of Michael’s fanboy ravings about Walt Disney World. However, to the search engines that looks a lot like keyword-mashing spam. There’s no language anywhere in site. Michael’s using that page as a case study, so we’ll see what the engines do with it.

I do agree with Michael in that I don’t think Google is out to become the grammar police. They don’t care if you’re an award-winning speller, but they do care if you can establish yourself as an authority and use language appropriately. The search engines have the capability to distinguish words, stemming and language. If your content looks like it was written by a 2-year-old’s random key pounding, they’re not going to be able to understand what your site is about and you’re probably going to be labeled spam.

It’s not about spelling, as much as it is about your ability to demonstrate your expertness and establish your theme, which very often includes using things called "words". Words, spelled correctly, combine to form sentences and demonstrate to the engines, and to your users, that you know how to use language.

Not to mention that if you didn’t take the time to hire a content writer or at least spell check your site, you also probably didn’t take the time to do a lot of the important things the engines are looking for, which will also detract from your expertness.

[I have to disagree. I think search engines, because they are looking for the best page for their users, absolutely have to care about grammar and language use. As Kim notes, search engines are used by people and people are the ones who are going to have a problem when your site displays a poor command of the language. The closer the engines come to being able to understand natural language, the more important language skills will become to your search engine optimization campaign. As I’ve said before, spelling counts for more than just your high school English teacher.–Susan] I’m not sure that’s really disagreeing with what I said. I agree that language is important, I just don’t think they’re going to penalize someone for forgetting a comma or spelling Graywolf with an "e" instead of an "a". There’s a difference between a page with some misspellings and a page that sounds like a Nigerian lottery notification letter.

It’s worth noting that there’s a difference in optimizing your site for alternate spellings of the same word (i.e. Web site vs. website) and not being able to tell the difference between "they are", "they’re", "their" and "there". Search marketers have long been careful to incorporate these alternate spellings onto their site in order to capitalize on traffic from the spelling-inept, however working these misspellings into your content really is no longer necessary since Google offers searchers the correct spelling of their search terms. If you do want to incorporate these terms, don’t put them in your content, use them in your Meta Keywords tag.

To be honest, whether or not the search engines are going to penalize because you can’t spell is irrelevant. The goal of your site is not to rank well. The goal of your site is to attract and convert customers. Ranking well is just one step in doing that.

If your Web site is riddled with spelling mistakes, typos, forgotten words and bad grammar, your customers aren’t going to trust you or whatever you’re selling. They’re going to think you’re a moron, head over to your competitor’s site, and buy from them.

I’m not nearly as much of a grammar snob as Susan is (ask her about Word and the term "pixelated", it’s her favorite thing to complain about [Word thinks “pixelated” is a misspelling of “pixilated”. It isn’t. End of story.–Susan] - If that were truly the end of the story I wouldn’t have heard it 32,309,809 times.), but if I’m shopping or doing research on your site and I come across more than one misspelling, grammar issue or affront to the English language, I am so gone. It’s not because I’m offended you can’t spell; it’s because your credibility is now shot and I can’t trust whatever you’re trying to tell me. I’d rather pay more for a product than buy from someone who didn’t care enough about their site to properly punctuate. It doesn’t say much about the level of quality of your products or services.

It also creates a readability issue. How am I supposed to believe that you’re a subject matter expert if I can’t make it through the first paragraph without have to decipher in my mind what you meant to say?

Spelling, grammar and readability matter. It matters to the engines and it matters to your customers. Good grammar may cost nothing, but bad grammar could cost you credibility, rankings and conversions.

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5 responses to “Good Grammar Costs Nothing”

  1. Simon Heseltine writes:

    Don’t accuse gray and grey of being misspellings, it all depends on which version of English you’re using – original, or American

  2. Lisa writes:

    Well, yes. But Michael Gray spells his last name with an “a”, regardless of what country you’re in. :)

  3. Patrick Schaber writes:

    Lisa – great post! While I agree that keywords and text are an important part of SEO, the key is the actual content and how it appeals to the reader. That should take first priority.

  4. graywolf writes:

    Now we won’t bring up that I have over 12 hours of source audio from WDW or that I have the source audio file for the monorail inside the Orlando international airport that takes you from the terminal to baggage claim … which coincidentally was voiced by the same person, oh I’m such a geek …

  5. Lisa writes:

    Okay, Michael, we won’t bring any of that up. But can we bring up the fact that you abbreviate Walt Disney World? Because that’s just weird.



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