Google’s Algorithm Update for Misspelled Words: A Big Change for SEO

December
26
2008

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Over the summer, Google has quietly been testing some changes to its algorithm. Many of these changes are now permanent and it’s increasingly clear that they will have a big impact on how some people practice SEO. Going forward, off-site SEO in the form of effective social media marketing will now play a more pivotal role. The primary focus of on-site SEO must shift to creating good quality content that will attract visitors via social media optimization and, by extension, will attract good quality inbound links. Content has never been more important for good search engine results than it is right now.

As we reported last week, personalized results based on user activity is having a profound effect on what visitors see and by extension, on the methods used for search engine optimization. Google’s algorithm is even more focused on the human factor and it is clear that they are working to refine their results based on true signals that a site is popular with visitors. It will be even more difficult to trick them with stuffed keywords, misspelled keywords, sneaky redirects and fabricated link networks; which we would never advise doing anyway.

One big change has been in their handling of misspelled words. Approximately two months ago, Google watchers started seeing unusual results from Google’s “Did you mean?” spelling correction suggestions. For example, this result was posted to Digg in August:

babby  

Notice that not only does Google suggest the alternate spelling; the top two results include it.

Over the last couple of weeks, some pretty dramatic changes in search results have been reported by Google watchers like Patrick Altoft and Danny Sullivan. Along with the new focus on personalization, these changes to the way that they handle misspellings may have a sharp impact on traffic to sites that formerly ranked for these spellings because that all important number one spot has been shifted two spots lower on the page.

Depending on the perceived importance of the listing, Google may give the top ranking spot to the listing with the spelling that Google thinks you mean (as the “baby” versus “babby” listing above shows). On the one hand, this is a positive move as it puts a serious kink in the practice of deliberately misspelling words to try to capitalize on that small subset of searchers who don’t provide the right spelling for their search term. Searchers are now more likely to find what they are really looking for even if their spelling is not perfect and unscrupulous site owners can’t “steal” visitors by purposely targeting their site to misspelled brand names in an attempt to steal visitors searching for your brand name. In particular, buying up misspelled versions of popular domains will no longer be an easy way to get traffic to your site for a popular keyword. As long as Google gets it right, this actually makes SEO easier — no more having to find a creative way to include a popular misspelling on the page. Google will figure out it out. Unfortunately, Google may not always get it right.

The principal problem comes when Google decides that your brand name is a misspelling of a more popular brand. For example, Google has decided that anyone searching for Soni must be looking for Sony:

soni-sony  

If you actually were looking for SONI (System Operators of Northern Ireland), you have to scroll pretty far down the page to find them. While this definitely puts an end to the strategy of trying to poach visitors by targeting site misspellings, it’s a little tough on any site whose brand name is tagged as a misspelling of another more popular site.   Of course, personalization should quickly bump the true site to the top of the page for any Irish system operators out there who may be worried about getting good results but all the same, this is a concern if your brand name is similar to a more popular one.

For most sites, this will be a welcome change and if you have been creating good keyword relevant content on your site and building high quality inbound links from trusted and relevant sites, you may notice little change. For any sites that have been counting on Gray Hat techniques like targeting misspellings, it looks like it’s time to change your strategy. To do that here are three good tips for making sure that these new changes don’t negatively impact your site:

1. Target your brand name both on-site and off-site particularly if it could potentially be interpreted as a misspelling of another brand name. In other words, include your brand name in your title tag and in inbound links to your site as well as your keywords. If you’ve been using brand misspellings as a tactic for SEO, you can stop now.

2. Cultivate good quality inbound links for your site from other sites that are specifically relevant to your brand. In particular, boost your authority rating for that keyword so that it holds its own and has less chance of being considered a spelling error.

3. Create quality content that will appeal to visitors. In particular, make sure your title tags and description tags are high quality content that will encourage visitors to click on your link. Even better, other site owners in your sector of the internet may want to link to your site specifically for the content and make no mistake, quality links are more important than ever.

Making your site more attractive to visitors will elevate your rankings in the visitor’s personalized search results and they may even vote your site up in Google’s new Search Wiki. While speculation that this will be used by Google to rank websites is premature, we need to consider the possibility that any time Google has data about site popularity that they can trust, they will use it. Does this mean that you should vote up your site in the search results? Well, it probably can’t hurt for you to vote your own site up in the search results but don’t count on that having any big effects at the moment. Google has undoubtedly figured out that this can be easily abused and any use that they make of the data will take this into account.

So, the bottom line on Google’s new changes is that for honest site owners, by and large, these changes will work to protect your brand and make it easier for searchers to find the results that they are looking for. Even so, these new changes may have unexpected effects on search engine rankings depending on each website’s individual situation and every site owner should take a good look at their recent results in case a change in strategy is required. As with any algorithmic change, there will be bumps in the road, but sticking to Best Practices for SEO and above all remembering that Content is King will carry you through.

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