Such is the case with SEO’s recent entrance in the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. punctuation debate. A blend of my day job and comic book TV from Joss Whedon? It’s the role I was born to play. Let’s do this.
An Intro To The S.H.I.E.L.D. Debate
The debate – stemming mostly from television and entertainment writers – is as follows: Calling a major network television show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an affront to carpal tunnels everywhere. At first glance, those periods might not be all that intimidating, but try writing a paragraph or two that references the show frequently. I’ll admit, I’m already tired and we’ve barely begun.
Richard Lawson of The Atlantic Wire wrote a great article this week renouncing the periods in SHIELD (gasp!). From Lawson:
Marvel has taken over entertainment and there’s little we can do about it. But, in the interest of common courtesy, nay decency, can’t they cut us a small break on this heavy, clunky title? We’re still including the all-important “Marvel’s” part, aren’t we? Is that not enough? Must our weary fingers be forced to type those extra periods every single time? No.
I tend to agree, mostly because all the copy editors I know live in different states. Later in the article, though, an interesting point is raised about the SEO implications from EW’s always fantastic Darren Franich:
Currently, we use periods, although there’s an only-for-online twist: In headlines, we go no-period for SEO purposes.
The SEO twist rears its sinister face! Let’s take a closer look.
How Does Punctuation Impact SEO?
There’s an implication in the EW policy that including periods in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (oh lord my hands!) will damage the website’s search engine rankings.
In theory, this concern makes some sense. As Lawson illuminates in his article:
Franich speculates that ‘If the show is good/successful and people are talking about it in five months, everyone is just going to call it ‘SHIELD’ and write it ‘SHIELD’ because I can’t imagine the average civilian writing ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ That’s six [extra] characters in Twitter.’
Naturally, this makes sense, and we can assume that Google searches for ‘Agents of SHIELD’ (sans metacarpal breaking punctuation) will far surpass searches for ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ (presumably conducted only by the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style and James Lipton).
BUT – when we take a look at Google’s estimated search volume (from their Keyword Planner in Adwords), we find a different story:
No difference! At least in terms of search volume, Google appears to be interpreting punctuated and non-punctuated SHIELD as exactly the same search.
This tends to be true of other popular punctuated acronyms as well. From RSVP to BYOB (or is that R.S.V.P. to B.Y.O.B. ???) Google is intuitive enough to understand that the searcher intent is exactly the same.
Thinking about it from Google’s perspective for a moment, it’s clear it’s in their best interest to serve up the best Agents of SHIELD content to searchers regardless of punctuation used in the article, page title, or meta data. It’s more important for Google to meet their user’s needs than it is for them to remain susceptible to “clever” SEO manipulation.
Don’t believe me? That’s cool, we just met, I get it (call me maybe?). But check this out – The SERPs (search results page) for both the punctuated and non-punctuated Agents of SHIELD searches are exactly the same. Link for link.
One potentially telling discovery from these results would be that Google doesn’t bold the punctuated version of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Wikipedia entry.
In general, Google will bold any exact match words in the page title or URL of a search result. The fact that they choose not to bold Wikipedia’s punctuated use of S.H.I.E.L.D. even when the search term uses the same punctuation is a big tell how they interpret this search. The other major tell? That Wikipedia entry is the only first page listing to include the periods in their URL.
That said, 9 out of 10 page titles include punctuated S.H.I.E.L.D. 5 out of 10 page 2 search results do not include punctuation (I’ll let you figure out how many page 2 results do).
But Wait, I Thought Nobody Would Search for S.H.I.E.L.D.?
While sound at first glance, the theory that no one will search for punctuated S.H.I.E.L.D. is overlooking the power of Google.
Google Instant, Google’s suggested search will basically eradicate the concern of no one actually typing out all that punctuation.
You only need to enter one period before Google assumes you’re going to punctuate the entire search. This expedites the search enough that it would be unreasonable to rule out this behavior. And as we’ve already shown, the difference between the two searches is borderline non-existent in Google’s eyes. Attempting to optimize for one over the other is like trying to optimize for tomato over tum-ah-toe.
For Geek’s Sake, How Would Stan Lee Do It?
Most importantly, what is the actual, comic book correct way to list out S.H.I.E.L.D?
While the SEO answer seems to clearly indicate Google interprets the term as equal (and to play it smart: use the punctuated version in your page title and the non-punctuated version in your URL, and whatever the heck you want in your content), the comic book answer is a lot more complex.
As much as I love Hickman’s current output (from Avengers to Manhattan Projects to East of West), S.H.I.E.L.D is a pretty mixed bag. It aspires for cosmic, atemporal greatness, but ultimately it’s a passable anomoly hidden within the Marvel Universe. Are we really going to let that dictate how we use SHIELD in modern times? I say nay.
As Franich points out in the Lawson article, we can actually find precedent for non-punctuated SHIELD in the comics as far back as 1968. That said, the article references Jim Steranko’s iconic Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #15 as the first instance of a non-punctuated SHIELD and this simply isn’t the case.
A quick view of this series’ coverbrowser collection shows us that SHIELD was referenced on comic book covers without punctuation as early as its eighth issue.
The point being: If Jim Steranko and editor Stan Lee and Marvel Comics were ok not using periods in punctuation by the eighth issue of this series? Well, you’re darn well safe not using periods in between SHIELD either.
Did Any of This Matter? Even a Little?
In the grand scheme of things, this may be entirely inconsequential. But it highlights the fact that ultimately mundane SEO considerations can often overwhelm the stuff that actually matters. It also highlights the wild west nature of SEO. Ask several different SEO consultants and you’ll probably get several different answers. Inevitably, you have to research and try various approaches and proceed with what works from there.
In a lot of ways, this explains why SEO has such a negative perception, too. Wait, we need to go World War Hulk vs. Dr. Strange on our hands because it will help our search rankings? That’s stupid!
It’s the implication that SEO is a bunch of little tricks that go completely against functional brains that keeps bringing the industry down to the level of manipulator supreme.
Having said all that, I’m glad I could find a mainstream SEO issue that doesn’t involve the words ‘dead’ or ‘fraud.’
Who will rank for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? The punctuated or the non-punctuated?
My guess? It will be whoever writes the most interesting content on the best site, and whoever is taking full advantage of Google News search results. Period.