Watch Your Punctuation Online

by Barry Welford March 11th, 2009 

Introduction 

Getting punctuation right is sometimes seen as an irritating chore by some.  Others may view it as a way of spotting whether a writer is worthy of consideration.  Of course there are many common punctuation challenges.

In addition to having problems with sentence fragments, run-ons, etc., students often become confused about punctuation rules that they may have forgotten. Therefore, we here provide some basic punctuation rules to help strengthen your writing.

There are 24 rules in all with some of them somewhat esoteric, for example: Use a semicolon to separate items in a list that already includes information separated by commas.

If you think people are picky about pronunciation, then you are in for a surprise.  As we will see, the search engine spiders are much more particular.  For example, did you realize that URL case matters in SEO.  It is yet another case where Twitter and Google do not see eye to eye.

Twitter allows both capitalized and lowercase URLs to return the same page. For example, both http://twitter.com/google and http://twitter.com/Google return the same exact page, content and information. But Google considers http://twitter.com/google and http://twitter.com/Google to be different pages, in many cases.

This article will focus on punctuation marks.  If handled incorrectly, it may mean that visitors never get to see web pages you hoped might be search-engine visible.  Here we will examine the role of punctuation marks both in domain names and in the Titles of web pages.

Punctuation marks in domain name

This is the easier part of the explanation.  Quite simply, punctuation marks are not valid characters for a domain name.

When choosing the name for your domain, always remember that: – you *can't* use stressed vowels (such as , , , etc.); – you *can't* use symbols (such as ' + . , | ! " $ % & / ( ) = ? ^ * ; : _ > ] [ @ ); - the name's length must range between 3 and 63 characters (excluding the extension); - the name can neither start nor end with the character "-", although the character "-" is allowed inside the name. So, to name your domain you can use any letter, numbers between 0 and 9, and the symbol "-". .

Perhaps it is obvious that you should not have company names that may create problems in choosing an appropriate associated domain name.  If you choose a company name that includes square brackets, say a name like [x+1], then who would guess that the domain must then be  www.xplusone.com.

accenture

The same problem comes up with letters that have accents.  You cannot put such accented letters into domain names.  Perhaps the height of folly here was demonstrated by Anderson Consultants when they chose their new name, Accenture, and added an accented letter that could not even be typed.

Where possible someone hearing your company name should be able to make a good guess at what the domain name might be. Punctuation marks are always silent.  So even if they were allowed, it could be confusing to put them in the domain name.  That allowable hyphen may sometimes cause a problem from this point of view.

Punctuation marks in the titles of blog posts or web pages

When  we switch from domain names to the titles of web pages, the situation can become very complex.

Here we will discuss some practical instances of problems with punctuation marks that people may run into.  For punctuation marks, there is more flexibility with web page titles than there is with domain names.  Where problems arise is when blog preparation software such as Microsoft Live Writer or content management systems, such as WordPress, take the title of a web page and convert it into a URL You can sometimes end up with URLs that may cause problems for browsers and for SEO.

Another issue is that some punctuation marks are used for particular functions in software coding.  This might create a confusing problem in some database applications.

The other issue that is important in SEO terms is that Google ignores punctuation.  This can lead to some frustrating situations in cases where your text with punctuation marks is confused with other text without the same punctuation marks..

The Exclamation Mark/Point

! The exclamation mark or point really tries to get attention. That is why Stan Lee, one of the forces behind Spider-Man and the X-Men, has named his company POW! Entertainment. Andy Nulman, the proponent of Surprise Marketing, has adopted the same device twice in his blog, Pow! Right Between The Eyes!  Unfortunately that pronunciation mark is not allowed in domain names and Google pays no attention to it when it occurs in the title of a Web page.

This is one case where a punctuation mark does very little for you with Google.  Just do a search for POW!  Our two celebrated friends here are lost within all the other entries for POW without the exclamation mark.

For Yahoo!, the exclamation mark was something they added to their company name right from the start.  Whether it was to distinguish themselves from other Yahoo companies that existed at the time is not clear.  However they too have had to go with the simpler domain, yahoo.com, without the exclamation mark.  Unlike Google, they do pay attention to exclamation marks in searches when used in a particular way. If you search with a "!" added at the end of your favorite Yahoo! feature or service , you'll bypass search results and go directly to the main page of that service on Yahoo!.

So in practice you can largely forget the exclamation mark, unless you think it may really help to get your human visitors attention.

The At Sign (Or Arobas In French)

@ The At Sign (@) is perhaps the most frequently used punctuation mark of all on the Internet.  In regular web pages, it is probably not appropriate to put it in the title since there are possibly situations where this may cause problems.  Like other punctuation marks it will be ignored by Google within the content.  That of course is somewhat at odds with Twitter usage where it has a very important use as the starting symbol of users' names within tweats.

The Ampersand

& The ampersand (&) is another punctuation mark that may cause problems when put in a title.  It is of course the starting symbol within the ASCII codes for individual characters.  One is well advised to spell out 'and' rather than using the & within a title.

The Apostrophe

' Almost the smallest punctuation mark, but it too can cause problems and indeed such problems were the major reason for writing this article.  The problem is that helpful software often tries to make the apostrophe somewhat more cosmetically stylish by replacing it by a right single quote. In so doing a symbol may be created that is no longer identified in some database systems.  It is certainly worth avoiding in titles and sometimes even in the content of articles.

The Underscore

_ We round off the discussion with two punctuation marks which have many less inherent vices.  The underscore is a punctuation mark used by some, although it is not acceptable within domain names.  It can be used in titles and in the body of articles without creating any problems with databases or software.  However some people may find it is a distraction.  If hyperlinks are indicated by underlines, then it is not possible to see whether an underscore is there or not.  This is one for personal preference and I personally avoid this one.

The Hyphen

- The hyphen is included here purely for completeness.  It has no vices.  It can be used in domain names and titles without creating any problems.  The only minor problem is if you must tell someone else a domain name then it is a little more detail to spell out.

Conclusion

Something as simple as punctuation marks should not really create so many problems.  However they are are used for so many purposes that in any given situation they may create confusion.  Hopefully the above will alert you and help you avoid possible difficult situations.  If you have additional points or concerns about particular punctuation marks, why not share them with us all in the comments.

Barry Welford

Offering practical, effective ways of strengthening Internet marketing strategy and getting bottom-line success, particularly through local SEO.

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14 Responses to “Watch Your Punctuation Online”

  1. Tom Bradshaw says:

    Thanks for the interesting article. I hadn't realised just how important punctuation can be for SEO. Say I had the keyword 'Fish & Chips' – would you advise that I spelt it 'Fish and Chips' in the headings, paragraphs etc? and not use the ampersand at all? (this is something I do tend to do).

  2. David Camma says:

    Those are great points, I try to always make sure I have someone proof my work, even if it is just my wife. More than SEO, punctuation and spelling can kill customer confidence.

  3. Jessica D says:

    Thank you for this very useful information. As someone with an apostrophe in their last name… I find myself having to remove the apostrophe when submitting a form onlline, or else risk bizarre-looking errors. When it comes to domains and email addresses, or headers/titles it's always better to keep it simple.

  4. Glenn Murray says:

    Very interesting and relevant post. Thanks Barry! Some comments:

    1) If you’re using WordPress for your blog, you can use the SEO Slugs plugin (http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/seo-slugs/). This “removes common words like 'a', 'the', 'in' from post slugs [URLs] to improve search engine optimization”. It also removes all problematic punctuation like exclamation marks.

    2) And in response to Tom Bradshaw’s comment above, you should use whatever you’ve found searchers are using. If they use the “&”, use that. If not, use “and”. Google’s smart enough to know they both mean the same thing, but it’s always best to match your target searchers’ queries as closely as possible.

    Thanks again for the great post!

    Cheers, Glenn (@divinewrite on Twitter)

  5. Quite simply, punctuation marks are not valid characters for a domain name.

    Not yet, but soon. Icann could be opening up new domains, not just language friendly but maybe punctuation friendly. Below is a quote about how they are planning on having more multi-language friendly (Arabic, and others)

    IDN (internationalized domain names), which will facilitate the use of languages other than English in internet addresses, including languages that do not use the Roman character set, such as Arabic or those that use Cyrillic characters, such as the Slavic languages. Source

    Great write up Barry. It's definitely one of a kind. :)

  6. Erin says:

    When you say title, you mean title tag? Not h1? Or both?

    I have a site where we have pages called things like:

    St. Patrick's Day Worksheets
    Valentine's Day Worksheets

    I can't remove the apostrophe, as it would just be grammatically incorrect to remove it.

    But the apostrophe shows up in the title tag, the h1, the h2, in all body text.

    So have I created a problem?

    Would love clarification. Thanks, Erin

  7. Josh Curcio says:

    Thanks for the article. This is something that is commonly overlooked. I use Live Writer for blog posts and consistently use punctuation; which does not show properly in the domain name.

    Again, thank you for bringing this to our attention. I will keep punctuation in mind when using in certain places.

  8. Phillip says:

    Punctuation is important. But it can be tedious to some especially if one does not really know where one should place it. But if you care how your readers read what you have written, you should do your punctuation properly.

  9. Thank you for the kind comments and glad you find the topic of interest.

    @Erin I was specifically referring here to the Title tag and not to headings. With the All-in-one-SEO-pack WordPress plugin you can make the two different if you wish. That is what I would recommend if you want to use punctuation in the < h1 > heading. Otherwise by default, the < h1 > heading is also used as the Title tag.

  10. Erin says:

    We use joomla for our sites and I got the webdev folks to make the title tag and the h1 the same.

    But my question is, should I be concerned that our title tags have apostrophes in them? But I can't see making the title:

    St. Patricks Day Worksheets.

    Just seems incorrect. What do you think? Or are your concerns here only with WordPress? I may be unaware of your purview.

  11. I think the only advice I can give, Erin, is to be very watchful for possible problems. Perhaps they will not occur.

    To illustrate, as it happens I wrote a blog post on a St. Patrick's Day breakfast. The URL is
    http://www.otherbb.com/2005/03/st-patricks-day-breakfast-with.html
    I used a simple apostrophe but I note that it now appears as a right single quote. From the source code, you can see the following:
    < title >St-Patrick & #8217; s Day Breakfast with the Canadian Podcasting Corporation | The Other Blokes Blog< /title >
    (spaces added to avoid display problems).
    I do not know how that happened. It does not seem to cause a problem in this case. You cannot do much checking as to what effect this has in Google, since the official word is that they ignore punctuation.

    BTW you will note that I have now removed the apostrophe from the blog title. It used to be called The Other Bloke's Blog. Perhaps I'm paranoid …

  12. Erin says:

    Thanks for replying so quickly! Looking at our pages, the apostrophe doesn't switch to that ascii thingy in our source, like on the page you gave as an example.

    So phew for me :)

  13. i think if you try to keep you titles and urls clean without too many distracting symbols you should be ok.

  14. Jeet says:

    @Barry: I expected to see a 'grammar' tutorial in this post when I saw the title in my reader :P

    But you have some good points there. I think Twitter is wrong in making URLs case insensitive, they should probably redirect other variants to a main URL chosen by the user.

    Hypens are often used in domain names but don't go well with 'offline' / mouth to mouth promotion.