In 1996, with Internet accessibility on the verge of snowballing into the ubiquitous phenomenon it now is, the German-speaking states of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein came together to make German easier to learn and use. The Rechtschreibreform was a reform of German spelling and punctuation that aimed to avoid changing too many of those rules familiar to living users, while reducing some of the more arcane rules that tended to trip users up (rules that most languages are doubtless guilty of having).
The reforms were controversial, and concessions were eventually made over certain aspects, but the new system has nonetheless been taught to classes of children since 1 August 1998. In Germany, millennials aren’t just more internet savvy, they’re arguably writers of a subtly different language than older speakers.
This is just one piece of background to the picture that faces businesses trawling through German search data. While grammatical and spelling variations (or outright mistakes) achieve search volume in all languages, the volumes encountered when ‘ss’ is substituted for ‘ß’ (this letter being ‘Eszett’, or ‘scharfes S’) can be quite significant.
We encountered this usage throughout our recent cross-market research into Football shoes: 180 instances of keywords featuring terms like “fußball” “fußballschuhe” and similar terms with Eszett have a ‘ss’ equivalent achieving at least 10 average monthly searches. The term “Fussballschuhe” achieves 18,100 monthly searches – more than a third of the searches of “Fußballschuhe” (49,500). This is despite the fact that the correct spelling should uncontroversially be “fußball” (this has always been the preferred form, and remains so post-reform).
The pie chart above illustrates just how big the use of ‘ss’ is compared to the correct ‘ß’: over 28,000 average monthly searches, nearly a quarter of all non-branded German search for Football boots. The phenomenon is more pronounced for this set of terms, but it crops up elsewhere when the dataset too:
Above, we can see that the ‘Grösse’ spelling variant of größe (‘size’, as in “fußballschuhe größe 26”) accounts for around an eighth of all search for the term – a still significant but less pronounced chunk.
Why is ‘fussball’ such an acceptable form? There are several potential factors:
Cases such as this raise important questions for website builders. Ordinarily we would recommend that including misspellings in pursuit of perceived SEO benefits is a depreciated SEO tactic: search engines are now more than sophisticated enough to pick up the slack for any but the most obscure mistakes, so you can focus on providing the highest quality, properly proofed content. But does that apply in this situation?
With the volumes involved in technically incorrect “ss” search being as high as they are, we would suggest there is no harm in including them in your strategy. In terms of PPC spend, it makes sense to examine whether there are any high volume ‘ss’ equivalents to terms already in use, and to create ad copies to serve both variants.
Onsite can also be covered without producing on-page content that consciously contains spelling mistakes: ‘ss’ spellings can comfortably used in meta elements, including the page title and URL. The screenshot above is from the Google.de SERP for “fußballschuhe”, and shows that brands in Germany commonly use “fussball” in URLs, and occasionally elect to use the term in meta descriptions. Note that Google will highlight instances of both the terms “fußballschuhe” and “fussballschuhe” regardless of which is searched for, suggesting that in most cases, the two terms are treated identically.