Some concerns in SEO are brand new. Issues come up every month with new technologies, new interactions and new rules. Some issues, on the other hand, are as old as communication itself. Since the dawn of language, some words have been considered taboo. Those words change across generations, but the result is always the same; a selection of words that society deems inappropriate, in general or simply for the young. Words with power, but words that lack the class of civilized discourse. So the question is; does Google uphold social mores and penalize sites using taboo swear words?
Google’s History of Censorship
Google has a spotty history with censorship, in a number of ways. The most basic, and most related to profanity, came with their Nexus One android phone. For the most part, the phone’s functionality is unimpaired, except when users tried to use the voice to text feature to compose texts verbally. In these cases, the common swear words were hashed out with a series of ####s. The phone eventually allowed users to turn off the censoring, but some reported disabling the feature didn’t actually disable it.
Google Glass was another recent victim of the same censorship, turning curses through voice input into asterisks. In this case, however, the device offers no ability to turn off the censorship.
Censorship with Google isn’t limited to profanity. Many Google services include minor bits of censorship here and there. Google searching intentionally limits pornographic results, even with the safesearch features turned off. Google Maps includes a number of name-based censors in the China and Tibet areas, to placate the giant economy that is China. Not to mention Google China itself, which has endured a rocky relationship with the Chinese government, toeing the line between free Internet and government-sanctioned results.
There are a few places where Google does wag its finger at the users of profanity. Safesearch rules, for example, limit the visibility of particularly profane posts. Likewise, some related services – AdSense primarily – discourage excessive profanity on sites. Google may not want to censor third party content, but when it’s the one publishing the links, it won’t promote vulgarity. In fact, many advertising groups – particularly those not geared around adult content – have clauses about the content of the sites they deal with.
None of this answers the question, however. Does Google censor search results, to give preference to sites that avoid swearing?
Swearing and the Intended Audience
The answer, from Google’s point of view, is no. The search engine giant does not intentionally censor profanity in search results. One of the primary reasons why not is the intended audience factor.
Most writers online know who they’re writing for. They know their audience and their audience’s sensibilities. They know if a swear word will be par for the course, if it will be shocking to serve a purpose or if it will be cause to lose readers. When writing, content authors are perfectly capable of restraining themselves.
Google understands this. It also understands that, if a piece of content includes profanity, it probably was intentional. Likewise, chances are the readers of that content will know and expect the profanity. If not, the effects are dealt with internally. Customer complaints may lead a blog owner to dial back or remove profanity, or it may be laughed off. In either case, it’s not Google’s place to decide how to regulate it. If someone is searching for content that includes profanity, chances are they’re aware of the possibility and are not particularly offended by the language. Google, then, serves up sites that contain cursing just as easily as sites that don’t.
The Risks of Overzealous MMO Censorship
Another great reason Google avoids censoring language is the risk of going overboard. Just think of the issues Google has with black hat SEO techniques. Profane language is the same thing, on a smaller scale. If Google censors and penalizes sites that contain the big curses – the F-word, the C-word, the N-word, etc – it also has to recognize and censor variations on those words. Using two Us in the F-word, or replacing an i with a 1, or using a ( instead of a C. Eventually, the censored word list begins to look like a random selection of keyboard mashing.
The line goes even further. One common way to circumvent wordfilters is to drop a period or a space in the middle of the word. Censoring that leads to problems where two perfectly benign words with a space between them parse as a swear word with letters on either side.
For that matter, you’ll even censor people who just want to say ****o.
Multilingual issues crop up as well, particularly for a global search engine like Google. Many words – or corruptions of words – that are taboo in one country are components of benign words in other countries. One primary example is Japanese, where the character Shi often comes before the characters that start with a T, which parses as a curse. The opposite can be true as well; benign words in English may converge into taboo words in other cultures.
SEO Penalties, but Not From Google
With no way to draw the line, and no reason to dictate what people can and cannot say on their blogs, Google keeps its hands out of the language censorship game. That doesn’t mean, however, that your site is free to swear as much as possible.
Swearing has social consequences. Among those consequences is offending sensitive users. Adults who feel offended by swearing will often take action. Sometimes that action is as simple as leaving a site and avoiding it in the future. Sometimes it’s a sternly worded letter to the webmaster through a contact form. Sometimes it’s scathing comments on the article in question. Rarely, it’s an overreaction from the enforcers of the politically correct, becoming a viral sensation that at once drives traffic and harms a reputation.
Perhaps more importantly, there is a mechanical reason to avoid swearing; parental controls. Parents who put restrictions on their computers to protect their children often include profanity filters by default. Many of these parents don’t bother to disable the controls when they’re browsing casually. It’s entirely possible that your site may end up blocked by one of these parental controls if you publish content with profanity. Similarly, some corporate watchdog applications that monitor employee Internet use may block sites that use profanity. Your choice use of a taboo word may block out parents and office workers alike.
Alternatives to Profanity
Profanity has one primary purpose in writing. It’s a break in the social taboos, used for emphasis and shock value. Using words that are not curses, but mean the same thing, is one way to add a personality and voice to your content. The creativity in the words you choose represents the personality you portray. Do you go with the lowbrow emphasis on the vulgarity, with a #!*$ replacement? Do you prefer to use a different, completely benign word for comedic effect? Do you make up your own, like science fiction writers so often do?
Of course, you can always take the high road and avoid swearing altogether. Unless your blog is centered around the crass personality, you can probably find another way to phrase your thoughts. If you must curse, Google won’t bat an eye, but you might not be free of the social consequences.