19th August 2013

​SEO and Apostrophes: A Copywriter's Tale

Graham Allchurch

I think about apostrophes a lot. They are a constant source of interest and frustration for me. I think about how silly companies must feel when they have signs made up that say things like: "Ovens, microwaves and fridge's for sale", or "Toilet's this way". Then I think they probably haven't actually noticed.

I think about those people who call me a 'grammar Nazi' for flagging it up when they misuse an apostrophe, which completely changes the meaning of what they're trying to say. Annoying.

But recently I've been thinking about the relationship between apostrophes and SEO, because it's a strange one. A sad one. A confusing one.

How Do Searchers Treat Apostrophes?

People who use search engines like Google or Bing are generally in a hurry to find the information or services they need.

That being the case, they're happy to omit punctuation like apostrophes (not that sticking an apostrophe where it's needed takes much time).

They also know that the intuition of search engines like Google will pick up their slack, delivering the results they want either after a click on the 'did you mean..?' link or auto-magically showing results for the grammatically correct phrase.

And it's a surprisingly huge number of people who do this, as Google's Keyword Tool shows:


Although the figures aren't completely accurate, it's clear that leaving out apostrophes is the done thing these days!

Just to clarify, the reason I started thinking about the connection between apostrophes and SEO in the first place was that I had noticed lots of sites only optimising for the grammatically incorrect 'mens..', 'womens..' or 'kids..' search terms, presumably to capture all this traffic.

How Does Google Treat Apostrophes?

Google obviously has to do a lot of work to do to ascertain exactly what people are searching for when symbols are used in searches.

To be honest, though, I'm not exactly sure how the search engine actually treats apostrophes, and any outside help on this would be most welcome.

But I *think* it just recognises terms like 'men's' and 'mens' as one and the same. That's because when you search for 'men's clothes' and 'mens clothes', you get the same set of results on the first page, give or take a couple of sites moving up or down the rankings by a couple of places. And in these results, there is a mix of websites clearly optimising for both 'men's' and 'mens'.

Here's a screenshot:


The same thing seems to happen when you run other similar searches, such as 'childrens shoes' vs 'children's shoes'.

How I Would Account for Apostrophes & SEO

So, if Google treats terms with and without apostrophes the same, regardless of how many people search for the grammatically incorrect versions, what is the point of optimising for the incorrect versions?

Surely people who optimise for these grammatically incorrect terms, to capture all this traffic, are wasting their time?

However, the fact that it all seems pretty unnecessary is only one part of my gripe with optimising for popular, yet incorrect, search terms. It's not all about traffic.

As recently highlighted by Chris Duncombe of Just Say Please, poor spelling and grammar can cost businesses significant amounts of money. He suggested that he once corrected a mistake on a client's website and saw the conversion rate consequently double.

In my mind, a company needs to do everything it can to show it is professional and proficient, especially on the internet. If web users have any misgivings at all about a firm they are considering buying from, they'll be off quick as a flash. Those misgivings can come from spelling mistakes and poor grammar.

If a consumer has the choice between two competitors that sell identical products, one of which has numerous visible spelling mistakes on its website and another that doesn't, they're likely to choose the one that appears better educated than the other. They'll trust that the firm they've chosen is better equipped to deal with their request, without encountering problems, than the other.

In addition, a good point made by Kevin Partner at PC Pro is that spelling mistakes, particularly in this digital age, are often synonymous with email scams, "making [people] even more uncomfortable about buying from such a site".

So if I'm wrong (I think I'm right but I know in SEO everything is fluid to say the least!) and Google does differentiate between search terms with and without apostrophes, you might well get more traffic by optimising for grammatically incorrect search terms. But what's going to happen to the site's conversion rate?

Besides, if I am wrong, my SEO solution would then just be to link build/advertise for the grammatically incorrect version and make sure the copy on the site proper is correct.

That way you wouldn't have to worry about your client's reputation being affected by a spelling mistake, as it is ultimately the responsibility of the website hosting the links to get its content right. And you'd still have a link with the anchor text that you want to target.

But hey, look at apostrophes taking over my life AGAIN. I'm going to stop thinking about them for a bit.

If you have any comments/suggestions at all, please feel free to leave them for me. I'll read them once this headache has subsided.