Linguistics, or the scientific study of language and its structure, can be applied to search engine optimization with positive results. But you have to understand it first.

Originally published in Black Betty Blog on January 23, 2017.

A lot of people don’t know what linguistics is because they have never encountered it in their day to day life. The subject is not a regular part of current educational requirements. Many assume that it is like taking a Spanish course, or possibly French Literature. But the scope of linguistics is much broader, and encompasses the sounds, parts, complex meanings and other systems behind all languages, which share common features.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of getting as many visitors to your website as possible, by ensuring it ranks at the top of the list in an internet search. At this point it’s not so much a fact as an assemblage of theories, classified as white, black or grey hat techniques. These involve use of the proper key words and phrases, link building activities, local and video optimization and social media.

Since the internet is made out of a lot of written content, and keywords play an important part in SEO, it follows that there must be some way to manipulate the lexicon to maximize traffic.

1. History

Human language is not set in stone, it is a fluid thing that changes and evolves with time. This explains why Shakespearean English is so hard for us to understand today, while Old English is all but utterly incomprehensible. Over the centuries grammatical conventions are altered as people invent new technologies or migrate to a new land and start to talk a new way.

Technically there is no correct way to say or write anything as long as the party you are communicating with understands your intentions, and ideally has the desired reaction – such as buying a car or saving you from drowning. But there are established conventions and formats of correctness that professionals use. Furthermore people invent new words all the time, a phenomenon known as coining a word.

This explains why the UK, USA and Australia all have different ways of spelling the same words, even in blogs and landing pages. If you look up a keyword (or even a regular word) in the dictionary, it should have a detailed explanation of the historical context depending on which reference you use.

2. Semantics

To make matters more complicated the same words can have different meanings, such as homonyms.

This concept can be applied to sentences and other uttered phrases as well. It is possible for two people to interpret a given statement alternatively depending on their attitude at the time. This explains common miscommunications such as why witnesses often have different versions of the same event. It also helps to understand why certain ‘ambiguous’ Google searches do not work well.

An ambiguous sentence is a phrase that has two or more meanings depending on how you read or say it, oftentimes with unintentionally hilarious results. Here are some funny newspaper headlines from the past that an editor with a background in linguistics would have caught.

  1. Reagan Wins on Budget, but More Lies Ahead¹
  2. Juvenile Court Tries Shooting Defendant
  3. Stolen Painting Found by Tree
  4. Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
  5. Eye Drops off Shelf²
  6. Miners Refuse to Work After Death
  7. Complaints About NBA Referees Growing Ugly
  8. Safety Experts Say School Bus Passengers Should Be Belted
  9. Farmer Bill Dies in House³
  10. Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

3. Cognitive Science

Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary study of the mind that involves linguistics, neuro science, computer science, psychology and anthropology. Basically everyone perceives the world from their own point of view, which they build from years of accumulating their own experiences. Computer and software engineers use cog sci when they design user experience. But we are woefully distant from understanding of how the human brain really works.

Short of being a mind reader you have no way of knowing how a random person is going to react to your online marketing. But you could influence the situation to sway it in your favor, given a set of conditions, such as educational background, geographic proximity, buying habits or browser history. Furthermore the best links can be determined by considering common ways a typical language speaker would react to the situation, given the construct to their environment.

4. Syntax

Grammar is not simply the proper way to write a phrase. It is also a branch of linguistics that defines a set of rules for analyzing the arrangement of words that form comprehensible sentences. Every sentence you ever read can be diagrammed according to its syntactic structure.

Similarly in computer science syntax is the set of rules that determines the combination of symbols considered to be correctly structured. It has to ‘make sense’ to the computer.

Thus each word is a fundamental part of a logical system that can be broken down. Language is more than just a lot of pretty poetry that girls and dreamers write down in their diaries. It is the way we construe the world around us.

5. Morphology

Image source: Difference Between

Sentences are made up of words, but words can be further divided into different parts known as morphemes. They are analogous to atoms or cells in this way. These consist of root words that cannot be broken down any further, as well as stems and bases that have meaning when you affix them to a root, but do not actually mean anything by themselves.

In the word “untouchables” touch is the root word, un- is the prefix and –ables is the suffix. They are all morphemes, but only touch is still a word by itself.⁴

To rank for the word untouchables, perhaps for a movie premier, one could conceivably incorporate other words with the root ‘touch’ in their advertising campaign. Another word that share the same features is unmentionables. What other words can you think of that begin with un- and end with –able?

The structure of human language is remarkably manifold and the best scientists still do not fully comprehend it. However language branches in several directions, and there are several means of analyzing web content that should be considered from a linguistic standpoint, in addition to prescribed methods.

References:

  1. http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/linguistics/synhead.html
  2. http://fun-with-words.com/ambiguous_headlines.html
  3. http://www.alta.asn.au/events/altss_w2003_proc/altss/courses/somers/headlines.htm
  4. http://fac.ksu.edu.sa/galghamdi/blog/111373

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