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Do Accents Really Matter in International SEO?

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International SEO specialists like to talk about the importance of "accents," those marks that reside either above, below, or between existing characters in a piece of text in the relevant language, for search engine algorithms.

But don't search engines these days actually compensate for accents automatically? Some argue that all you need to do is directly place the character in HTML and Google will do the work for you. So what's the story?

Accents Only Matter for Certain Languages

Linguistically speaking, these marks are known as "diacritics," which are extra marks added to characters. Sometimes the combined character with accent is regarded as a completely separate character in the alphabet, sometimes not. Accents have a range of uses, but the principal uses are to:

  1. Change the sound of a letter to better match the pronunciation.
  2. Distinguish between words spelled the same way but which have different meanings.
  3. Mark abbreviations or acronyms.

English, the mother tongue of many of the readers of this column, has very little to do with accents, which is partly why they're worthy of some discussion and explanation.

Let's consider how accents work principally in French and German. These languages do a fine job illustrating the issues that can arise, whereas in some other languages (Italian, for instance) they have no impact.

Search Marketers are Missing Millions of Opportunities Every Day

German has a couple of major accents of concern, one which is featured in the name of the author of this column: the umlaut, or two dots above the ü, Ö, or Ä. The other is the Eszett, which looks like a funny looking B, or ß.

We'll look just at the umlaut, which roughly translated means "pronounced differently." In this case, the accent always has an impact on pronunciation. However, a quirk of German is that the two dots can be replaced with an "e" after the vowel sound to change the spelling. So taking the "Krüger" part of my name, this can also alternatively be spelled "Krueger" but not "Kruger."

Look at this table and see how this affects the keyword equivalents for "cheap flights" in German, taken from Google's keyword tool:

Cheap Flights in German

This exercise produces some stunning findings. The search results for all of these searches are different, which suggests -- but doesn't guarantee -- that the algorithm treats them all differently. However, the rankings also all vary, though with some overlap with top places varying less than lower first page listings. So definitively, the algorithm treats different spellings differently.

This means opportunities exist in international SEO for clever marketers. For instance, one site in our test ranked only once in position eight for just one of the terms above.

Look also at the third one in the list. With 74,000 monthly searches, "Billigfluege" is both correctly spelled and offers opportunities within the search listings, as there are relatively few pages at 192,000 for this term when compared with the others.

We don't have enough space to go into huge detail here, but just in our list there are 12,000 searches resulting from incorrect use of the umlaut. When this is multiplied against the long tail (e.g., "cheap flights + destination"), the resulting opportunity is no longer in the thousands, but in the tens of thousands -- and perhaps even millions. (A salutary note here is that this also has an impact on paid search.)

Input Methods Affect the Way People Search

Why does this situation arise, and why don't searchers simply search correctly (rhetorical question!)? A study from a few years back estimated that the French use accents when they search only half of the time that they should be used.

My own estimates, based on current French search activity, are that this may now actually be higher. So why do the French drop accents?

Look at the image below adapted from Wikipedia's. The red circles represent where the accents sit on a French keyboard. They do involve a certain amount of finger stretching.

French Keyboard

As a business, we employ many native speakers of different languages and have a vast collection of different keyboard types to accommodate the 40 plus languages we work in. But the French keyboards are all in the cupboard as the French speakers here prefer to set short codes and not use the French keyboard itself.

Maybe the Académie française, guardian of the French language, might like to look at the popularity of French keyboard layouts and their impact on the French language?

In summary, accents still matter and can have a significant impact on search marketing results in certain languages. Just not in English.


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