Americanize This! Google Changing My Search Spelling By Default

(I have a half written blogpost in my head, about ‘deathbait’. When I finally resurrect it, you can smugly point me back to this question.)

Is it just me or are the days of the bucket test now dead?

I was ‘told off’ by a journalist recently for using jargon- laden crap language.., so by bucket test (which was the terminology we used at Yahoo! and I’ve seen it on the outside too) I mean when a small percentage of search users, are deliberately shown a different set of results to most others. Performance criteria such as likelihood of refining query and repeating search, interaction with results, interaction with which result etc. are all closely monitored and then the findings used to inform whatever change may be required.

(You totally knew that anyway.)

Why bother with a bucket test? Anything that seriously impacts the relevancy of the search results (algorithmic or paid) may seriously impact the revenue. When a 1% swing in click-through rate could plus-or-minus millions, you tend to be a bit anal about this.

Lately; it seems like Google in particular, do not bucket test anything for the UK market. Perhaps they test a behaviour in the US and apply the gross learning to the UK (and possibly Australia too, based on another piece of panic-addled conclusion- jumping research I’m halfway through.)

Examples? I’ll give you examples.

Crap results for my location and search intent.

US Listing for Immediate UK Requirement

Social/realtime goes live, seems pretty irrelevant, easily gamed.

Realtime Results Easily Gamed

Palin Pwned


There are others, but the latest one has my interest seriously piqued, as I’m selfish and there is the potential for this harming one of my clients. All credit to the sharp eyed Peter Handley @ismepete who got to work yesterday morning, did a quick check on “search engine optimisation” and to his surprise, found that Google had assumed “search engine optimization”. (Note the ‘Z’ spelling). More on that here: Google Changing Your Search Automatically.

Of course, “search engine optimisation” and “search engine optimization” provide two different sets of results. Don’t know about you, but I’ve been optimising for the “ise” and “sation” spelling of such terms, under the impression that the alternative is an Americanisation and incorrect to boot; (not to mention the client preference, publisher preference and the site content). Sure I’ve dropped a deliberate Zed here and there in the metadata and in Base feeds, but seriously… who is going to ask for a link with the anchor text to a US spelling for a UK client from a UK site. Seriously unprofessional? No? Totally fair game? (I’d like to get @juliejoyce opinion on this as a linkbuilding professional par excellence. )

I was under the impression that both spellings are acceptable, with the ‘s’ form possibly more traditional and correct and that the ‘z’ form is a more modern Americanisation. How wrong I was…

Before getting off on my high unicorn and throwing a mounted strop, I checked a number of resources including Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Wikipedia. Most have a pretty tough copywrite policy, so have a look at the definition linked to here, which I’ll also paraphrase.

Oxford English Dictionary.

Both “ise” and “ize” can be correct in most instances. The American English language was standardised in the 19th Century, with preference to “ize” which seemed to provoke the opposite preference in most other English speaking countries including most of Britain and perhaps even stronger in Australia and New Zealand. “Ize” has its’ roots in the Greek, whereas “ise” is more of a Latin preference, particularly the French.  Many UK publishers favour the “ise” form, and there seems to be generalised acceptance that this form is most correct, and the other form is an Americanisation. (Wrong!)

So why are we getting this default assumption in our SERPS now? Is there any pattern I can establish as to which terms get the Greek treatment? I’ve taken some terms at random and performed a pretty basic and manual test. In the interests of being correct, I’ve used FR to denote where the “s” spelling I have used is retained in the results, and I’ve used Greek, where I am presented with “ized” variants by default.

Results of spelling test


Comments

1. No assumption is made with single token terms e.g. optimise, personalise, realise, actualise, amortisation, optimisation, realisation, pasteurisation, industrialisation. (I tested the shizzle out of this, but please let know if you spot a single token example).

2. Many, but not all two-token terms, force me to view results for the “z” spelling whether my problem term is an “ised” or a “sation”.

3. In both cases (“ised” and “sation”) three token keywords, produced the same results as two- token keywords.

4. “sation” ending keywords produced more instances of the Greek than “ised” keywords.

In an increasingly internationalised culture, I’d argue that the issue of correctness is a moot point. What is interesting to look at, is the volume demand for the Greek spelling and consider that against the preferences in common usage with UK publishers. I tested the volume and most of the two and three token terms had no associated local volume (in the Adwords New Keyword Tool), however with “search engine optimisation” and “search engine optimization” there wasn’t a huge disparity in the local volume. 90,500 searches for the FR form and 74,000 for the Greek. Whilst I have doubts about the accuracy of the local volume data; this is still nothing like the kind of results or the amount of results we would need to make statistically meaningful inferences. That said, I was surprised that the volume demand would be this close. When I tested the single token terms there were more instances of data being available.

Local Volume Per Term


Comments

1. In many cases there is no available volume data

2. Where volume data exists; with the exception of “pasteurised” and “industrialisation” the volume of requests for the Greek spelling is either very close to or much greater than the volume of requests for the French spelling.

Conslusion

Though there is very little data available and my little test is by no means exhaustive, it does seem that the volume of demand on such terms might of been the driver of the recent change/test. Perhaps the online community by its’ very nature is already more internationalised and is becomming more so.

Is this really such a big deal?

Maybe not right now, and maybe not for everyone; but if your client is the Milk Pasteurisation Board, or your client offers a personalised engraving service for iPods it could be! Or if you offer conversion rate optimisation, or if you’re on page one for social media optimisation, then I would be seriously considering this. If this change is by default  rolled out to all possible instances of terms, then that’s yet another thing we will have to factor into the work that we do, and yes that’s what we’re paid for, and yes – we’d get bored otherwise. I think this is most significant because there is a disjoint in the spelling used in demand, and the spelling used in publisher content (for many high-profile and trusted UK publishers and I’m sure – a lot of our clients).

My question to you is this? Do you have client keywords that are or could potentially be effected? Will you be factoring and accomodating this potential change into your work? What will you be doing? I’ve mentioned dropping different spellings into meta data and Base feeds, but would you consider using different spellings  for URLs on a new site? Would you use different spellings in visible content? Would you drop these into footer links?

Is this a good time to pre-empt a sea change and optimise for the Greek spellings whilst the competition is less? I’d love to know!

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36 Responses to “Americanize This! Google Changing My Search Spelling By Default”

  1. Nichola

    The ramifications of this are huge. As an American I don’t presently have any clients where there’s concern. But again, that’s because I’m an American. Yet I can see where this is already a serious problem for anyone using different spelling than we do. And I can not comprehend why Google would do this at all. It bastardizes (bastardises?) the entire concept of respecting entire cultures of humanity.

    Next thing we know, a search for auto windscreens will bring results for car windshields, and a search for replacement auto bonnets will bring back companies selling car hoods.

  2. Richard Vaughan says:

    Compared to some contemporaries whos posts have been a little light on content, it’s nice to see a bit more meat on the bones of this analysis. However for me, I’m not sure internationalisation is the key point here. The Greek spellings being forced upon us are not the accepted spelling for the (UK) English language and therefore it is incorrect for a UK search engine to be “correcting” what is not incorrect! Google are bastardising our language and that is unacceptable.

  3. Nice work Nichola! Is this really the beginning of an acceptance on our part of the correct nature of the Greek spellings?

    I’m struggling to understand these figures – most Brits, especially us SEO Brits love a good old rant against Americanisation & spelling! From the reply tweets to your post I’ve glanced at so far, there’s not a lot of support there either. I’d be interested to look deeper behind those search results, and monitor them over an extended period of time.

    That said Google do seem to enjoy messing around with UK SERPS so much, we’ll no doubt be seeing more tweaks and changes around UK/US spellings in the near future. In the meantime, I’ll hold out a little before I start going crazy with those ZEEEEs!

  4. Richard Vaughan says:

    A quick check in MS Adintellignece shows a crushing defeat for “ize”.

  5. This is turning into a bit of a storm – a few of us noticed it yesterday and since then everyone’s getting involved.

    Hopefully it won’t come to the point where there will be a sea change, but if it is then there could be implications for a huge number of people.

    Oh, and have you seen that Bing are also doing it?

  6. I’m glad that the forced change is no longer being pushed on me, but as we’ve said there are some wide implications. Well, in Internet Explorer 8, anyway, I’m still having it forced down my throat in Chrome and Firefox.

    I realise that working in the SEO world that my search habits are somewhat unusual, but should Google be re-determining what I am searching for without my choosing?

    I think personally that the suggestion to potentially change your search to Googles suggestion is sufficient, and I also don’t think it’s for Google to determine how a region should be spelling a word.

    The other thing for me here, is that US search engine optimisation companies are getting traffic from the UK at the moment, that they otherwise wouldn’t be receiving due to this change. I think that as these are not so focused on serving the UK market, as the title of my original post suggests, that they are reducing the relevancy of the results for people looking for this in the UK.

    This might be ok if it were just a clear informational related search and whilst this is likely to be the case for some searchers, many of the people that are searching for the [Search Engine Optimisation] phrase are likely to be looking for a supplier.

    Maybe Google just did it to wind SEOs up for a bit – keeping us on our toes :)

  7. Julie Joyce says:

    This post is so fantastic and interesting that I would have responded even if I wasn’t supposed to. Ha!!

    Seriously though, regarding this bit:

    “Sure I’ve dropped a deliberate Zed here and there in the metadata and in Base feeds, but seriously… who is going to ask for a link with the anchor text to a US spelling for a UK client from a UK site. Seriously unprofessional? No? Totally fair game? (I’d like to get @juliejoyce opinion on this as a linkbuilding professional par excellence. )”

    (Thanks for the compliment and you better be saying it out of sincerity and not being all snarky by the way.)

    I would never ask for a link with the US spelling in a case like this. It IS unprofessional…but it’s also a signal that the person doing the marketing doesn’t have a clue about how this all works. If a client wanted to rank for a US spelling too, for whatever reason, then I wouldn’t have a problem getting a US-spelled keyphrase even on a UK site, but otherwise, no. In the event that a US spelling does become standard though, I’d change my mind.

  8. [...] then went on to provide a retweet of an article from Nichola Stott over at SEOChicks who was all over this issue and found this problem to be widespread among a plethora of other words where the “s” [...]

  9. One thing we all seem to be in agreement about here is the issue of choice. Surely it is not for Google to determine it would probably be more relevent for us to be viewing the ‘Greek’ (considered Americanised) spelling. Despite the fact that the data may have its’ holes and as @Richard Vaughan has pointed out; is not corroborated by MSN/Adcentre data. I think this paternalistic hijacking of our search term is of some concern, and although it seems ludicrous to imagine, I’m with @Alan Bleiweiss. If they can do what we’ve seen by default, then how long until my request for “fitted curtains” is met with results for “fitted drapes”.

    I know this is creating a bit of a storm, and I’d be lying if I pretended that wasn’t my intention. What I would like to do, is get a feel for how seriously should we take this? I’d hate for any SEOs to rush off and put some knee-jerk activities into their plans to accomodate this; which was also my motive for getting your feedback on ‘would it be unprofessional to try to wangle some ‘misspelled’ anchor text links?’ @JulieJoyce (you know I wasn’t being snarky)!

    Personally – until @GilesCoren starts using these spellings, I’m not panicking :-)

  10. Julie Joyce says:

    Oh I’ll definitely capitaliZe on and optimiZe for some shit spelling in my anchor text. People can’t spell. I feel ok with it.

  11. To panic or not is up in the air for a brief moment. I’d like to think that if enough of a storm were to be generated on this, that Google would pull back the reigns and get out of the business of dictating linguistic identity among cultures.

    Let’s take another look also at whether this is purely an issue for the SEO community to deal with. How many site owners are educated to just write quality content when they’re doing it themselves? And thus, are site owners now to suffer because Google made such a far-reaching unilateral decision without rhyme nor reason to it’s consistency or lack thereof?

    No – this is not good. And if it doesn’t revert back, it WILL, without a doubt, cause our industry to deal with it. Which will, in turn, confuse and befuddle people visiting sites that are all of a sudden filled with mis-spellings and variations on spelling.

  12. I tend to agree Alan. In my reference to Giles Coren there I’m essentially saying that until the most respected UK journos who write the most respected content, for the biggest UK online publishers start to do this (and have other online media follow suit) then its not for Google to decide.

  13. Richard Vaughan says:

    There is another concern related to this: If, as per Nichola’s question in the article, SEOs react to this change by link building for terms which are “incorrect” or internationalised we could possibly through some hidden mechanic within the Google algo make the problem even worse. The validity of our language is at stake!

  14. Wardy says:

    I can’t see how Google can possibly expect these changes to stay, it is beggers belief that they are expecting over 60+ million in the UK alone to accept incorrect spellings of our own language for theirs.

  15. @Richard. Exactly! Google performs ‘action’ – prompts SEO ‘reaction’; consequences of which further inform ‘original action’ – adds ammunition to Google as agent-of-social-change. Fuck that.

    @Wardy Let’s hope they’re smarting enough from their two-fingers from China, to actually consider the feedback. ;-)

  16. Richard Vaughan says:

    My gut feeling is that this has nothing to do with US vs UK spellings because if it were, the changes would be across the board (which they aren’t). I think this is either a ploy to display higher revenue adsense in the SERPS or to unnaturally increase the cost of such advertising. Or in fact the aim could be to do both. Google is fundamentally an advertising company and I bet this was some bright spark’s idea to produce some marginal gain in revenue.

  17. Richard Vaughan says:

    Bugger I meant adwords not adsense :(

  18. @Richard. I think you have something there “I think this is either a ploy to display higher revenue adwords in the SERPS”…

    I’ve mentioned it seems completely whack that they do not seem to be bucket testing anything lately to do with UKSERPS. I’m fighting an internal message that goes “actually they’re not bucket testing, because global ad revenues are massively uplifted by the relevancy fail”.

  19. Let’s just accept the fact that Google is a publicly traded company with all of the ramifications that come with that. Specifically, ownership needs to drive ever increasing profits. While they continue to seek new revenue models, and thus increase profits, they could very easily allow the SERPS to remain pure. Oops. Too late. Along the way, someone near or at the top made a financial business decision that the SERPs can always garner more revenue share.

    This is reality because that path continues to bring in the lion’s share of revenue. Throw in ownership steeped in the pressure-cooker of investor profit along with code-monkeys who never see the light of day except to kick a soccer ball around the Googleplex, and this is the crap we have to deal with.

    Until Google actually puts a team onto the task of actually assessing what the word “quality” means beyond an increase in revenue, or someone comes along with a higher quality (from that human perspective) solution, they will most likely continue to butcher things for intelligent people performing search (since it’s the clicks of the masses that matters more).

    In turn, this will continue to motivate spammers in even more ways, giving our industry a further bad rap, and that, in turn, of course, means the rest of us in the Search marketing business will need to take on even more factors.

  20. Wardy says:

    Surely the thoughts that it is financial orientated in that they can make more from the “Americanised” (sorry, Americanized) spelling wouldn’t ring true for UK adwords?
    I would imagine most of the UK companies would be paying more for our correct spelling than the American way? There is probably many in the UK that don’t even look at putting up adwords for the other American spellings of these words?

  21. Wardy says:

    In follow to my last post:
    Actually, if I thought that through then it would mean that more companies would start adwords campaigns targetting the American spelling which in turn would drive up adwords revenue so yes I can see that as a potential valid point!

  22. Luci says:

    I think if there was a choice, it wouldn’t be so bad – ie if you searched for -iSe and it bought up those results, but suggested -iZe then that’s kind of alright. Still get the results wanted. But to do the reverse in the UK search engine smacks of ‘wrong’!
    That said, I had a quick Google search today, and it’s not doing it any more…

  23. So it seems this morning as if Google have reverted to the former position and are no longer showing results for “search engine optimization”, by default. (Bing however; IS still showing results ‘including’ this spelling, meaning a Wiki listing with the ‘z’ form of the spelling is number one.

    Which leads me to wonder if Google doesn’t bother to bucket test anymore – as they can leave it to the fallout from the SEO community?

  24. It turns out it’s not just ise and ize google is correcting for us – ie it’s not just an americanisation issue.

    I checked for some common misspellings like stationary and stationery, dear and deer etc. Even weather and whether. And Google appears to be serving up results for what I assume is most commonly searched-for variant.

    So if you search for stationary (which surely few people do), you get a bunch of stationery shops, like it or not. Even searching for whether (again, can’t be that common) gets you the BBC weather site.

    More here: http://www.malcolmcoles.co.uk/blog/googles-spelling-problems-are-worse-than-we-thought/

  25. @Malcolm

    Thanks Malcolm. I read your post with interest. This adds even more perspective to this move. Although they have reverted the default position with “ise” and “ize” spellings, it still remains that there seems to have been some “idiot tuning” to the algorithm.

    Which frankly; sucks.

  26. And, which, Nichola, also means this needs to be monitored over time still. Because it could have occurred due to any number of reasons, and may or may not happen again. And until there’s historic data, it means no changes in methods need to be made, which is the only good thing in all this.

  27. Agreed – this is certainly not the end of Google’s foray into “Teaching You How to Spell’… it would be very interesting to continue to monitor some of the examples that Malcolm found.

    Particularly interesting is the stationary/stationery example as the search volumes switched over.
    Having regular reviews of the SERPs for these terms, alongside their search volumes and notable tweaks to the Google algorithm could definitely give us more insight into whether (not weather) they’re really focusing on ‘improving’ results with these popular spelling alternatives.

    Aside from auto-correct, I’d also be interested to know how the decision is made on ‘did you mean’ suggestions and whether this then relates to search volume, leading to possible auto correction.
    e.g. Humour has no “did you mean” suggestion and shows only results for Humour however “Humourous” does have a “did you mean: humorous” suggestion with the top two results from that SERP being shown.

  28. I have to admit that I was quite puzzled by the whole ‘s’ ‘z’ thing too at first. Like you, I don’t think it’s too serious right now, but I think it’s definitely something companies and SEOs are going to need to keep in mind as they move forward. However, not quite in the way you may be thinking. See: http://seo.site-reference.com/optimising-optimization-google-spells-seos-crazy/ After looking at it, I think there was thought behind it. (No excuse for the first two examples you gave though lol)

  29. Hi Angie.

    I came across your post this morning via Malcolm’s blog and had bookmarked it already. You beat me to it!

    I’m going to add some comments and questions over there now as you’ve given me a refreshing perspective.

  30. [...] Americanize This! Google Changing My Search Spelling By Default (my personal Fav) – SEO Chicks [...]

  31. These are very interesting comments but I’m still confused as to what Google thinks it’s doing. Are they trying to change the English language for all time???

    I’ve a website which sell castors or ‘castErs’. Hits on the site appears to dropping due to the Americanised spelling issues. Without changing all reference of ‘Castors’ to ‘Casters’ on the site which will annoy UK visitor, I unsure what to do.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love Google – but what are they doing?

  32. Hi Gareth,

    I read a recent (excellent) follow-up on this and similar pieces from others around the time which you can find here: http://www.hudghton.co.uk/why_google_just_cant_suggest.html

    In his post Jon finds that the rather poor implementation of the search suggest tool, seems to inform this increased volume in alternative spellings be they Americanised, or just plain wrong.

    Regardless of what Google are doing, I think it is fair to say we won’t get a huge amount of say in it. Whilst that sucks, there are still a number of things that you can do, to help your site rank for “casters” without changing your user-facing content.

    You can add “casters” to your page meta-titles and in H tags, as well as for specific products in your base feed (if you have one). You could also look to approach your link building strategy with this “Americanised” spelling in mind, and deliberately use the “casters” spelling in anchor text.

  33. Interesting. Thanks for the article. If only I’d known the history when I was an English teacher. Recently I insisted that all native English speaking authors Anglicised for UK clients, and Americanized respectively, because of the preferences that I knew existed. In terms of SEO, or latent semantic optimisation (LSO – OMG another acronym!) it’s quite possible that there are gains to be made.

  34. J Moir says:

    A bit of an aside, but has anyone had problems with this before?

    If I search for mcarthy baits, google assumes I want mccarthy baits, and I have to click back to get the results I was originally looking for.

    I have a customer thats just a little upset that google are trying to direct traffic away from people on their site. Is it just the sheer number of references to mccarthy that drives google to do annoying things like that?

    Incidentally the site is chock full of references to ise and colour ;)

  35. Antrobbo says:

    It seems that Google has taken another step forward in the Americanisation of English. Having recently looked for my Mum’s Christmas present, I was shocked to learn when searching for “Christmas gift mum” on Google.co.uk that Google assume I can’t spell Mum, and automatically re-spells my search term from “Christmas gift mum” to “Christmas gift mom”. So perhaps it’s not about the history and more about……. Comments please!

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