Your Website's Spelling and the Search Engines

Spelling errors, variant English spelling and website promotion

Your Website's Spelling and the Search Engines

by Christopher Heng,

If you have a website written in UK or International English like, you would probably have encountered the occasional email from visitors complaining about "spelling errors" on your site. For example, the US variety of English spells certain words differently from UK, Australia and various other countries in the world, thus leading a few people from the US to think that words like "humour", "licence" and "generalise" are spelt (or "spelled" if that's your poison) wrongly.

While most webmasters experiencing this usually simply ignore the well-intentioned but uninformed message, one implication of the existence of variant spellings of English is that people searching for a particular term on the Internet may only use one variant spelling, while your site, using a different spelling for the same word, will not show up in the search engine results for that term. After all, if you were trying to look for a "colour palette" would you try both "colour palette" and "color palette"? Chances are that most people would simply search using the spelling they are accustomed to, and proceed with the results the search engines produce, even if they are aware that the word has variant spellings.

A related problem for webmasters has to do with the terms that people tend to spell wrongly. If they spell the words incorrectly (and I don't mean variant spelling here), they are likely to enter the wrong spelling in the search engines. Certain search engines like Google will attempt to list the pages for the words as spelt, but suggest the correct word to search at the top of the page. Nonetheless, if there are sites that actually have the misspelled words, they will be listed, and you will have lost your potential visitor to those sites.

Possible Solutions

  1. The Old, No-longer Recommended Solution: Keyword Tag

    In ancient times, people used to list variant spellings and misspelled words in their keyword tags. For example, if their page is about the word "misspelled", they may have a META tag like the following (angle brackets around the META tag omitted below to avoid problems with certain email software):

    <meta name="keywords" content="mispelled, mispelt, misspelled, misspelt" />

    in the HEAD section of their page, while perhaps using only one form in the BODY.

    However, search engines, including Google, no longer bother to index that META tag anymore, so this technique is useless. In fact, there was even a time when Alta Vista specifically documented that it discriminated against sites that use keywords in the META tags that do not occur in the body, so using META tags in this way may actually harm your search engine position. For details, see my other article on Alta Vista Search Engine Ranking at

  2. Embedding All Variants and Misspellings in Your Text

    With the keyword tag no longer usable, it looks like the only thing left to do is to embed all the possible variants and misspelled words in the main body of your web page.

    Needless to say, this is not an elegant solution.

    If you leave misspellings or variant spellings without comment in your text, some readers may leave your site with the impression that you don't know how to spell, and thus feel that your site is less than professional (even if you have intentionally left misspellings in your text to cater to the average Internet searcher). I sometimes use this method to leave variant forms of words in my text. (Note, though, if you spot a misspelled word, please let me know, since I do not deliberately leave misspelt words in the text — only variants like "misspelt" and "misspelled". All spelling errors in my text are precisely that: spelling errors. Please don't hesitate to send me a message!)

    The alternative, is to weave sentences with variants or misspellings subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) into your text. For example, I have somehow managed to include the various misspellings and variants of the word "misspelt", such as "mispelled", "mispelt", "misspelled" and "misspelt", into this very sentence you're reading.

    Unfortunately it is difficult to keep doing this throughout your site without making your article or page seem extremely clumsy. As a result, I rarely bother. My suggestion is to not to bother with less important keywords, and only take the trouble with crucial keywords that you know will drive traffic to your site. This will help you get the most from wrong spellings and variant spellings, while hopefully minimising ("minimizing") the problem of over-wordy sentences and clumsy constructions.

  3. The Solution You Should Never Use

    Although most webmasters probably know this by now, I thought it may be a good idea to mention another method that I strongly suggest you never use.

    In the past, webmasters have managed to creep keywords into their pages by masking them visually on the web page. For example, they may do this by putting white text on a white background, hoping that the visitor who uses a graphical browser would not notice. (By "graphical browser", I mean a web browser that can display pictures and colours, and not just plain text. This includes the vast majority of browsers, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, Safari, Chrome, etc.)

    There are a couple of problems with this approach. Firstly, some search engines actually check for this colour change in the HTML <font> tags, and will downgrade a site's position in their results (or perhaps even exclude it completely) if it detects that the site is using such tactics.

    A few webmasters work around this by hiding their colour changes in their Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which as far as I know at the time of this writing, search engines do not check. Before you rush out to do this, be aware that just as you're smart enough to work around deficiencies in the search engines's current algorithms, the search engines' programmers are not without wits either. Sooner or later, they'll improve the algorithms to detect such subterfuge, and your site will disappear from the search engine results.

    Update: search engines like Google are now more CSS-aware. You can read more about how Google is able to detect text that is hidden using CSS tricks from my other article at

  4. Embedding Wrong Spellings in Your Image ALT Text

    Another trick used by experienced webmasters is to put variant spellings and wrong spellings in the ALT text of your images. Some search engines, notably Google, do index such tags.

    Of course you should take the same care in phrasing the ALT text as you do the rest of the content on your site. Remember that there are people who actually rely on those tags to "view" your site: visually impaired (or blind) visitors rely on text to speech synthesizers to read those tags so that they are able to understand your content. If you simply dump your keywords unceremoniously into your image ALT text, you will leave a trail of rubbish that will probably drive away those visitors. Note also that not everyone views a site through a graphical browser. All the skeletons you hide in your image ALT text will also be revealed to such people.

"Dear Sir/Madam, You Have a Spelling Error On Your Site..."

The next time you receive a message from your visitors complaining about the spelling errors on your site, take note of what spelling they expected to find. Even if you have spelled all your words correctly, the variant spelling or misspelling they expected could be the clue to getting more visitors from the search engines!


These days, the Google search engine is quite good at recognising variant spellings and producing the appropriate pages, regardless of which version of English the searcher uses. As such, you no longer need to do the things mentioned here.

Copyright 2002-2017 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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