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Does Punctuation Matter to the search engines?


Mar 12, 2012

Punctuation: Grandpa’s Life May Depend on It … But Does It Matter to the Search engines?

Who cares about punctuation, anyway? Isn’t it just the province of musty old grammarians languishing in some ivory tower?  Well, there are some situations where punctuation actually does make a difference. Consider these two sentences:

  • “Let’s eat, grandpa!”
  • “Let’s eat grandpa!”

Obviously, that extra comma does potentially matter to grandpa.  Still, this kind of situation is not what our customers in New York and New Jersey have in mind when they ask our web designers if punctuation makes any difference on websites.

Google announces it’s paying attention

Google actually made an announcement last month that represented a change in practice in the way its search engine treats punctuation marks. Going forward, it said that it would update its indexing and display results for punctuation marks including exclamation points (!), hash signs (#) and ampersands (&).  It’s unclear to us as web designers what’s to be gained by this action, but it aroused our curiosity enough to run a few checks. We searched Google on the single character “;” and here’s what popped up: a Wikipedia article on semicolons, a tutorial on “How to use the semicolon,” and a discussion of commas versus semicolons. Fascinating stuff to somebody, no doubt, but of little utility to our NJ web developers.

SEO:  Does punctuation play a role?

Web designers developing commercial sites are focused on making those sites successful by getting them noticed by the search engines. Inquiring web designers want to know if there are any punctuation practices they should avoid — and, conversely, if there are any ways they can exploit punctuation to gain an advantage with the search engines.

The accepted wisdom on this subject is that the engines’ spiders basically ignore punctuation in most cases. However, there are a few things that we’ve learned about the subject. A couple tell us that punctuation can hurt your results in some instances. And another couple can actually help the effort, at least to a limited extent.

The good, the bad and the ugly in punctuation

Let’s look at the bad news first. You really can’t use any punctuation marks in your URLs except for an underscore (_) or a hyphen (-). Everything else is going to malfunction.  That may mess up your metatags, too, unless you are a real whiz with the html.

Furthermore, if you use a bunch of commas or pipes so that you can stuff a whole lot of keywords into a small space on your page, you risk annoying the search engines and triggering their spam detectors — which will probably lower your page rank.

Those things said, there’s at least one little trick facilitated by the spiders’ disdain for punctuation that web designers like to take advantage of. Consider the way that many people place keywords when they are searching for something to buy in a specific geographic area.  Suppose I am looking for a hand car wash in North Jersey? Even though it sounds better in your website copy to describe your business as a “North Jersey hand car wash facility,” that’s not the way many people search. They will type “hand car wash North Jersey” in the search bar. BUT — since Google will ignore the period anyway — I can write these folks’ preferred string into my copy as follows: “…come see us in Paterson for the best hand car wash. North Jersey car services have been patronizing us for 20 years….” Clever, right?

The bottom line on punctuation is that you should use it to make your pages and the messages they convey as easy to read and as persuasive as possible. There’s really no point in getting visitors to your web page unless you can keep their interest once they get there.

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