Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!
As some of you may know, I am a lifelong student of philology. One of the aspects of this basically means I enjoy studying HOW people use words to communicate with one another. This pursuit has come into active play for me in my work as an SEO and content writer, as I analyze the words people use to search for things. Who would have thought that such a strange hobby could actually have real-world monetary value for me?
I want to begin here by defining what a compound word is. Basically, it’s two words put together.
News + paper becomes newspaper. Eye + brow becomes eyebrow. It’s interesting to note that folks who learn English as a second language often create compound words that we don’t use as native speakers. For example, in India, a bunch or set of house or car keys is called a keybunch.
We just don’t say that here in the U.S., but if I was trying sell keyrings in India, I guess I’d be using the word ‘keybunch’ a lot. For a good little list of the difference between compounds, hyphenated words and spaced words, see Wilbers.
I would like to propose the theory that many compound words form because of familiarity and frequency of use in a given segment of the populace. I need look no further than my own field of work to see proofs of this. For example, I spell website as a compound word. My spell check insists that the word is web site. I do not trust my spell check because it wants me to write bog instead of blog and goggle instead of Google. So, I turn to the web to see how other people are writing this word.
I see that the Google index contains 3,570,000,000 pages for ‘web site’, and only 2,480,000,000 for the compound ‘website’. When I discovered this a few months ago, I toyed with the idea of changing the way I spell this word, but I just couldn’t make the switch. I must say the word website upwards of 50 times a day, and probably write it 10 times a day. To me, a website is a very solid thing. It is not merely a site of the web, as ‘web site’ seems to denote. By the same token, I doubt that to Kellogg’s or their consumers, ‘flakes of corn’ is what they feel life is all about. It’s about ‘cornflakes’ – a settled, specific thing. However, I’m allergic to corn, and don’t work for a cereal company, so I might hesitate when trying to think about whether to spell this word ‘cornflakes’ or ‘corn flakes’. It’s not a familiar part of my way of life, so thinking of this item as a compound is not automatic for me as it would be for Kellogg’s CEO.
Apart from writing content for my firm, Solas Web Design, we have run across this pattern of familiarity breeding compounds in researching and writing for our clients. A great example comes from the fabulous Virginian pottery company we work with, Emerson Creek Pottery. Their pottery is handmade, handpainted, handcrafted. Or, at least, this is how they write these terms, but spell check disagrees. ‘Hand painted’ is what it recognizes, and I would venture to say that this is because the fellow who programmed it does not spend his life handpainting beautiful irises and lavender on vases, dishes, teapots and bathroom accessories. But the folks at Emerson Creek Pottery do.
Why does this matter? Because it creates the need for a special type of SEO research that will show us whether people looking for what this client sells think they want ‘handpainted’ or ‘hand painted’ pottery. We have run into this same interesting issue with many of our clients. Here are a few further examples:
beehive/ bee hive
teapot/ tea pot
birdhouse/ bird house
In most cases, it is the vendor or manufacturer who uses the compound, and the public which splits the word in two. This seems to confirm my theory, and though I was unwilling to change a common word in my own field to please the public, I certainly would when doing SEO for a client. After all, it’s the public that we are trying to reach!
I would be interested to hear how other SEOs and content writers approach this issue, as I have never seen it discussed before though it is clearly a matter of considerable importance.