Post 20: Will SEO homogenise English?

I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague and, as often happens these days, the topic turned to getting more traffic for web sites.

One of my colleague’s foremost requests was for me to stop using British English in my writing, and to stop applying it to stories we source from our content partners.

The reason? “Virtualization” is a mighty search keyword, requested by hordes of folks around the globe every day.

But “Virtualisation,” our genteel Australian alternative, is searched for several orders of magnitude less often. So it makes no commercial sense for us to make the small adjustment to our copy to spell the word with an “s” rather than a “z”.

Some would argue that changing the single letter was a futile act of pedantry in the first place. I argued against because I think that small elements like this can be an important marker of identity that is appreciated by readers, even if only because it shows you care enough to make some small adjustments.

Right now, however, the fact that commercial online publishing is driven by the need for good search engine optimization* outcomes seems to me to be a likely source of homogenisation of the English language.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I find bland opposition to change stupidly antediluvian. But I think it is worth noting that the combination of commerce and technology are creating forces that work upon language in interesting ways.

* Yes, that is a deliberate and ironic reversion to “z” there, folks

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8 thoughts on “Post 20: Will SEO homogenise English?

  1. Sadly, it’s not just spelling.

    To meet SEO requirements, the whole language is being tortured in web copy to up search rankings and therefore hits.

    So spelling is one thing, but also repetition of keywords in the post or web copy is another major influence. Word repetition is an anathema to good writing but repetition is what seems to drive the search algorithm (I just gave you an example, using the word repetition, which would be a keyword in this post).

    SEO has a lot to answer for, not least having the power to fundamentally shape style, grammar and syntax of how we write, not just spelling. Sad really when you think you have to write for a mathematical construct and not real people.

    BTW: In terms of spelling, way back when I was a journo (in the 80s), my paper (The Illawarra Mercury) standarized on US spelling for some words prior to computers coming on the scene.

    Reason: American spellings had less character counts (e.g. dropping the u in colour) than Brit spelling. This meant fewer headlines bounced and in fact, less lead used, this being when hot metal ruled the printing industry and Linotype machines and metal forms were king. Stone age stuff.

  2. Interesting theory from your colleague.

    I, however, agree with you on the matter of context. When googling my way around information, a single Z spelling is often enough for me to reject the content and go looking for something local instead. Spelling something with an S proves to the reader that you are writing for them (if they live in an S market like Australia or the UK).

    I know online publications can derive higher ad rates from higher traffic levels, but perhaps the onus should be on the web reports to illustrate more clearly how many of those readers were valuable. Who stayed more than 30 seconds? Who read the site from an Australian registered IP address (and therefore can purchase the product advertised as being on sale at Harvey Norman)?

    Just some more thoughts really.

  3. I could be wrong here, but I was under the impression Google is smart enough to know virtualisation = virtualization. Ok, maybe not that example, but many, many other words are treated as equivalents.

    On the other hand, as you and @emvicw have already pointed out the localised spelling will give you a higher ranking when Australians (or Kiwis, Poms and Paddies) search for the word. If your advertising paymaster is local – that’s a bonus.

  4. The issue is that the largest number of searchers uses a “z”. Of course for a .au or .uk or .nz centric site, folks from the USA or elsewhere might not be the eyeballs you want. But advertisers expect the kind of audience numbers that come with US readers. It’s another example of niche media being hailed as a jolly fine idea, but struggling.

  5. I totally agree that advertisers expect US audiences, but isn’t it our job (as publishers or, in my case PRs) to educate them about the value of the numbers we provide?

    I moved to Australia from the UK and the move taught me that whenever I give a client a magazine circulation figure for an Australian publication I need to re-explain that this market has a much smaller population than the UK or US and put the number in context to the local market.

    It was the same in the UK when I was entirely focused on the telecoms industry and a niche magazine with 8,000 subscribers could charge considerably more advertising (and was regarded as a much more valuable placement) than Computer Weekly with more than 100,000 subs.

    I do however understand that some advertisers will skim down a list and go for big numbers, and their dollars are likely as welcome as the more savvy companies!

  6. @ Emvicw advertisers like big audience numbers. In my own personal experience selling sponsorships for Smart Call, my call centre podcast, it is very hard to educate them about niche media and how a small, dedicated audience is valuable when they can have banner ads displayed thousands of times a week at very little cost.
    @Billbennettnz Google is pretty good at call centre vs. call center – the same results come up on both searches

  7. @Simon very interested in your experiences – we definitely bear the brunt of the same thing. It even goes as far as us having to justify doing PR at all in a smaller market (“surely the US articles reach them too?”).

    I wonder, do advertisers listen to measurements like % click throughs or even enquiry/sales conversions?

  8. This point came up in a discussion I was having with someone else a week ago that advertisers in Australian and New Zealand increasingly don’t want to pay for international traffic.

    Of course this depends on lots of things and isn’t likely to be the same for all online publishers – it certainly wouldn’t matter with Google Ads for example. I know of sites in New Zealand that only bill advertisers for local eyeballs and was told by an Australian online publisher there’s a resistance to paying for international traffic there.

    This probably doesn’t apply to the niched sites like Smart Call.

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