Google Misspelling Match: A Tale Of Two Searches
As a collective people, we aren’t always the greatest spellers. Even those of us (ahem) with English degrees have our weaknesses (as you’ll see in a minute). Knowing that, site owners have long wondered about how best to make sure their sites show up in search engines for misspelled queries.
Site owners try to account for misspellings
Site owners have tried putting the misspellings in the meta keywords tag (doesn’t really work; search engines typically don’t use the keywords tag) or occasionally using the misspelled version in the word in place of the correct spelling (can hurt conversion as it can make the site look less professional).
Search engines say they account for misspellings
Search engines generally tell site owners not to worry about it. They have spell checkers that work pretty well so when searchers misspell queries, the results will still match the right sites. Searchers know this and tend not to worry about spelling things right, knowing they’ll get the “did you mean” prompt that provides the right spelling. And search engines see so many queries that they know better than anyone how people are likely to misspell things.
What really happens in search results
For the most part, the search engine process works well. Someone misspells a query, the search engine asks them if they really meant the correct spelling, the searcher clicks and all is well. But I’ve recently come across two very different behaviors. (Note: neither of these behaviors are new, some recent searches just caused me to think about them a bit more.)
When a search engine is REALLY sure the query is misspelled
I assume this can happen if the search volume for the typed query is really low. If the search engine is pretty sure the searcher meant something else, they may not only show the “did you mean” prompt, but they’ll treat the misspelling the same way they treat synonyms and just show results for what they think is the correctly spelled query.
You can tell this is happening because a different word than the search term is highlighted. Normally, this is a great search experience, but it can be frustrating when the searcher really meant the original. For instance, this morning, I was looking for my doctor’s number. This was the result:
As you can see here, Google autocorrected the query from [robon] to [robin] and not only showed me the “did you mean” prompt, but is treating “robin” as a synonym for “robon”. You can tell this is happening because “robin” is bolded in the results. Normally, this behavior is helpful. For instance, “washington” is highlighted in the results because Google is matching it to the “wa” in my query, and that can help me as a searcher see results for my state, whether the site used the abbreviation or the spelled out word. But in the case of finding my doctor, he doesn’t show up until the very last result of the local one box.
So in this case, letting Google sort out the misspelling isn’t helpful for either the searcher or the site owner. (And in this case, the query wasn’t misspelled; Google’s misspelling algorithm just thought it was.) If you see this behavior as a searcher, you can force Google to only return exact matches by adding a “+” to your query. For instance, in my search for my doctor, this was the new result:
Google still showed the “did you mean” prompt, but only showed exact match results and for this particular query, the relevance of the results were much better. But how many searchers know to use the + sign? Maybe 3.
When A LOT of searchers mispell a word
Search engines might see so few queries spelled a certain way, that they are sure it’s misspelled and show the “corrected” result automatically, but the opposite can happen as well. A search engine might see so many misspelled queries, that they think searchers are really looking for that misspelling. (Spelling correction is primarily, if not entirely based on query data.)
Take for instance my post on my Sony Vaio. Apparently, I don’t know how to spell it. But apparently, neither does anyone else (including Sony, as you’ll see in a second). So when you search for the incorrectly spelled [sony viao], Google does suggest the correct spelling, but it doesn’t automatically show sites with the correct spelling in the results. How do I know this? Because my post is the first result. (And a sony.com page with the incorrect spelling is in the top five as well.)
[sony viao] is currently the second highest volume query to my site. (Of course, it’s not bringing my target audience, but that’s a different issue.)
So what’s a site owner to do?
In most instances, spelling corrections from the search engines work great and generally, I don’t think site owners need to worry. In the second case of the misspelling have enough query volume to warrant a full display of its own results, one answer may be user-contributed content. If that many people misspell something in a query, you’re likely to get people misspelling it when they add comments (reviews, ratings, discussions) on your site. I wouldn’t suggest misspelling it on purpose to get the mispelled queries. If you optimize for the misspelling (as I accidentally did), you’ll miss the far greater number of correctly spelled queries. And if you optimize for them both, you’re likely to look unprofessional and may lose visitors. Credibility at a glance can be really important online.
The far greater concern is when you don’t show up for correctly spelled queries because the search engine thinks the searcher meant something else, as in my search for my doctor. I don’t necessarily know the answer here, as this is based on query volume and if very few people are searching for you compared to a similarly spelled word, you could run into problems like this. Certainly the first step is making sure that your site is well-optimized to be found in search. As you can see from my + query, the doctor’s site still is nowhere to be found, even though the search results are all sites that reference him. (And why that might be is an entirely different post!)
Update: Thanks to Glenn Murray for pointing out in the comments that I misspelled “misspell”. In my defense, it’s a common mistake. On the other hand, I do have an English degree, so that’s just embarrassing.