Is Google Making us Illiterate?Since 2004 Google has been in widespread use, and there are now generations of people who have grown up using Google on a daily basis.

These are the same people that have grown up in an age of technology, using mobile phones and specifically SMS text messaging. It has long been argued that text messaging has negatively impacted people’s ability to spell and use grammar correctly, particularly in formal writing.

Google is similarly positioned to exert such negative influence and I’ll attempt to show how it could be doing using an example from the world of retail.

I was actually working for a client in the retail sector who sells clothing when I came across some shocking examples of the use, or rather misuse, of the apostrophe within meta titles and descriptions belonging to some of the major UK retailers.

Sorry if you find this next section a little patronising, but I’m going to assume that everyone reading this has had their understanding of grammar impaired by the continued use of search engines and mobile phones.

Which is Correct:

{Mens Clothing}


{Men’s Clothing}


{Mens’ Clothing}


I’ll get the first one out of the way immediately, there is no such word as “mens”. “Men” is already a plural and so does not need pluralising in this way. This also makes “mens’…” inaccurate. The correct plural possessive (as the clothing ‘belongs’ to men) is therefore “men’s”.

Now let’s see which of the top 7 retailers got this one right in their meta title and description:

meta title and description

As we can see, all of the retailers have used the grammatically incorrect version, although interestingly Republic has chosen to optimise for both “mens” and “men’s”.

Womens Clothing, Women’s Clothing or Womens’ Clothing?

The rule for “women” is exactly the same as for “men” above. The correct use is therefore “women’s clothing”.

Again let’s see which of the top 7 ranking retailers got this one correct in their meta title and description:

meta title and description

Many more retailers seem to have got this correct, the reason for which I shall return to later.

Ladies Clothing, Lady’s Clothing, Ladies’ Clothing?

This is probably the most tricky one of the three examples I’ve provided. “Ladies” refers to more than one ‘lady’, whilst “lady’s clothing” would refer to one particular lady’s clothing. The correct choice is “ladies’ clothing” with the apostrophe after the ‘s’ being used to signify possession (the clothing ‘belongs’ to the ladies).

Not many of the major retailers seem to be targeting this keyword, but those that were all seemed to have opted for “ladies…” and not “ladies’…”

Why Do Google Not Auto-correct?

This confused me somewhat. Normally if you spell something incorrectly Google will either automatically correct your spelling, or at least suggest what it thinks you might mean. Enter “mens clothing” however and… nothing. Not a sausage.

Why is this?

Do Google not know that “mens” is not a word? Do they not have a good grasp of grammar? It’s difficult to believe that this is the case, though I’m at pains to offer an alternative explanation. This is made all the more confusing when you search for “womens clothing” and Google asks if you meant “women’s clothing” – why do it for ‘womens’ and not ‘mens’!?

Why Are Retailers Getting it Wrong?

The first thing to establish here is, are retailers actually getting it wrong, or are they purposefully using incorrect constructions in order to target the most popular search terms? According to Adwords, “mens clothing” is searched for 40,500 times monthly (locally in the UK, using exact match), compared to just 73 times for “men’s clothing”. That is a staggering statistic.

The SERPs for “mens clothing” and “men’s clothing” are different too, so Google are definitely not ignoring the apostrophe in this instance. From this perspective you can completely understand why retailers are using incorrect spellings within their meta titles. Some retailers, such as Republic even use both “mens” and “men’s”. One can only assume that the misspellings within the meta descriptions represent a lack of SEO knowledge (meta descriptions aren’t used for rankings), or are an attempt to maintain consistency (I’m probably being generous here).

I guess that retailers, or at least the people who do their SEO, have to decide whether it is more important to be correct, or to use the construction that most people use. I suspect that the latter option will win on most occasions when sales are at stake, at least when the difference in search volumes between the two is so pronounced. I just really thought that as an industry, we’d got beyond the whole incorrect spelling for SEO thing.

Chicken or Egg?

So who is to blame? Do retailers spell incorrectly deliberately because customers do? Do customers spell incorrectly because they’ve been badly educated by Google and the retailers? I suspect that both are true to an extent. It’s a chicken and egg situation and the only party involved that can actually fix this, is Google.

If they autocorrected searches for “mens clothing” to “men’s clothing”, and their autocomplete also selected the correct variant, people would begin to search in this way and retailers would have to optimise for the correct spelling. You can already see evidence of this above, with many more retailers using the grammatically correct “women’s clothing”, quite probably because Google suggests that particular spelling.

Does Search Illiteracy Equal Illiteracy?

So far I’ve spoken only of the influence upon people’s search behaviour, but it’s possible that repeated incorrect grammar use online could spread beyond search engines and into general language use. The aforementioned links between text message speak and a decline in literacy are often disputed. Indeed, renowned linguist David Crystal has categorically stated that he believes any such link is a myth.

I would argue that there is a clear distinction between txt spk and standard language use though, whereas the distinction between “mens” and “men’s” is less clear. Children and impressionable adults are much more likely to believe that “mens” is acceptable language use, and to use it themselves, than they are likely to think that “gr8” is fine to use in formal writing. People often learn by imitation, and Google along with retailers and SEOs, are not setting the best possible example.

So come on Google, you can do better.

Dan Almond studied English at The University of Liverpool and works at Piranha Internet, a  Preston SEO Company. He regularly blogs about all things SEO and social media on the Piranha Internet blog.

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by quinn.anya

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  1. Well I think it makes zero sense to intentionally misspell in the meta description because it’s not a ranking factor.

    Regarding the title. It’s hard to say I would think if the misspelled it in the meta desc also then they probably just plain misspelled it.

    I’m personally not great at grammar but as you point out these mistakes are easy to spot. So this makes me wonder who the heck is doing their SEO?

  2. I think it is a combination of things. One you get individuals that craft meta data that either do not know better or simply do not realize that additional symbols are required for proper grammar and you have those who do look at keyword data. I think the community is getting lazier when it comes to searching because they know Google will just correct them.

  3. Thank you for addressing this.

    I would respectfully disagree with David Crystal. He even admits: “There is some evidence to suggest we’re becoming less obsessed with correct spelling.” I would posit that as we see different spelling variations, we lose confidence in our own spelling ability, and take on “what everyone else is doing.” Because it’s not as if it’s not being taught; it’s what people are exposed to.

    Having been an editor for more than 20 years, this is something I notice. For example, it’s become common to use an apostrophe to denote plural (pencil’s, jacket’s, etc.). And just within the last few years it’s become acceptable to use “persons” as the plural for “person” (it’s “people,” people!). Thanks for letting me vent.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Gerald, I too have wondered who does their SEO! These are big companies, with large marketing budgets and that makes it even harder to believe that they could be genuine mistakes.

    Maciej, I definitely think that Google encourages laziness. What I do worry about, is the possibility of this lazy use becoming accepted. Google are in a position to ensure that this is not the case, but do they really care?

    Juliette, many linguists adopt the ‘descriptivist’ approach to language – basically saying that we should embrace language use for what it is, and not prescribe its use. Whilst I agree to an extent, I think it’s important that we maintain some degree of ‘correctness’ in language.

  5. Interesting, Dan. I tend to agree with Gerald, that intentionally misspelling in the meta description makes little sense, since it has no bearing on ranking. Assuming (yes, I know… a dangerous practice) that the copywriter was provided the keywords by the SEO, it’s possible that such a disparity in search terms was simply accepted and incorporated into the copy. Personally, I prefer to use the correct, rather than common usage. However, I’ve never encountered such a dramatic difference.

    I agree, it’s an autocorrect that is certainly within the capabilities of the algorithms, so perhaps it’s simply an oversight on Google’s part.

  6. @Doc,

    Good point! I personally never think it’s a good idea to intentionally optimize for a misspelling, regardless of what the search volume may be.

    I think it makes one look less than intelligent and it’s just unprofessional.

    On that basis I refuse to optimize for misspellings, even if the client requests.

    This may make more sense when using Adwords, but not for static web pages.

  7. I agree with you both. Generally I think that the requirement to optimise for misspellings is a thing of the past, and even when I have had to do so, I’ve always done it in such a way as to let the reader know that it is incorrect.

    e.g. “Women’s clothing (commonly misspelled “womens”)…”

    Ideally though, I agree it is better to just use the correct spelling.

  8. good idea for misspeling the words related to search

  9. I agree that it’s a combination of factors, but I disagree with the fact that we don’t know how to spell or have stopped caring: I spell correctly when writing but often spell incorrectly when searching.
    I believe we need to differentiate between those who can’t spell – due to lack of education or lack of caring – with a new online “language”. When searching online, knowing that punctuation and unstressed words don’t really “count” I search with basic grammar. It’s also a question of time. Adding the ‘ is not hugely time consuming, but why bother if it’s not going to affect the search?
    When it comes to optimizing a website should use both “womens” and “women’s”, but not to take into account those who don’t know the difference, but for those who do it for ease or to save time.
    In a nutshell, grammar is as important as it ever was, as long as we are able to distinguish when we can commit “mistakes”. Texting incorrect grammar is now accepted because it takes up less space, searching with incorrect grammar is faster. When we begin writing emails and blog posts full of grammatical errors, then we’ll have a problem.

  10. Hi Kate, I will also occasionally spell incorrectly when searching, knowing that Google will correct my spelling. The point is that in the examples above, they do not auto-correct.

    Whereas you and I know what is and is not correct usage, others might not. People often learn language by imitation and with children now relying upon Google more and more, this could lead to grammatical inaccuracies becoming more commonplace in all forms of writing.

    The whole ‘why bother’ argument could equally apply to language use more generally – as long as the correct meaning is conveyed, does it really matter how? Food for thought!

  11. @Dan, I didn’t mean to imply “why bother”, you’re right if we start down that road where does it end? Moreover, there are different ways we communicate, based on the technology, so as long as we can differentiate, I think it’s natural to adopt mechanisms that allow us to work faster.

  12. Another question would be, if that applies to other languages as well, as far as I`ve met, it does not, I tried many intentional typos, and it haven’t even corrected me, because other websites wrote it that way.

  13. While we’re on the subject of plural and singular, Google itself is singular. There is only one Google. Therefore, the line:

    “Do Google not know that “mens” is not a word?” Should actually be “Does Google not know that “mens” is not a word?”


  14. Great post – I would have to agree – although many of us know the correct terms to use i.e. men’s as opposed to mens’ – I think with the increase use of short text in general day to today has possible cause users to get more relaxed when searching on Google as they know more often than not Google will correct the error (or have a good idea what you meant) and display ‘did you mean’. However this is still excuse as we’ve read above for mete data to be incorrect by no means.

  15. I’d question that, Darren. Google as a company (and the community of people working there) is often referred to in plural

  16. I agree Ann, Google is often referred to as plural. As is Sony, Microsoft and many other singular entities. It’s always wrong however. Companies are singular. Google is a company.

  17. Darren, I apologise for referring to Google as a plural, however as you point out it has become common usage and as such has become more readily accepted in everyday language use. I was also referring, perhaps rather lazily, to Google inclusive of the people that work there, as Ann pointed out. This is particularly common practice within the SEO industry.

    We often find that accepted use changes over time, as in the case of the verb “to Google” which can now be found in the dictionary. Perhaps this is yet another example of that, or perhaps I’m looking for an excuse for my own error…

  18. With Google’s information and resources just being a couple of clicks away these days, the exchange of knowledge and information has never been so fast and so vast in possibilities

  19. Anthony Rhody says:

    I realized GOOGLE is not literate when I noticed that their box that sometimes appears on-screen before I enter a site reads: The blog that you are about to view contains content only suitable for adults.

    Bad enough when “content” and “contains” appear in one sentence but GOOGLE has managed to put them consecutively!

  20. I think the guys at Google simply haven’t gotten quality control quite right. I’ve found several examples, one of them being that Google automatically suggests you actually meant “awhile” instead of “a while,” contributing to (or is a consequence of) people thinking “awhile” is usually or even always the correct way to spell it.

    “While” is a noun. You can’t live in Spain for awhile. You can live in Spain for a while. You can of course “live awhile in Spain” as awhile is an adverb. It’s annoying when even Google can’t get it right.

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