Anyone who works with German SEO will know that the German language presents some special challenges. There is capitalisation of nouns, umlauts, cases and a variety of prepositions. And then there are compound nouns. Being the special darlings of the Germanic languages, compound nouns are a way of combining nouns into new words, without prepositions or spaces in between. So what in English would simply be a number of consecutive words (such as ”bus driving instructor”) would in German be one single word (Busfahrlehrer).
It is the missing spaces between these components that create a problem for search engines. While the English compound would be expected to rank for the combined phrase as well as the individual components, the German pages should not rank for parts of the phrase at all. And users who search for an incorrectly split up compound should not necessarily get the same results as for the correctly formed word. Or should they? Let’s have a look at some examples.
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Most German internet users will occasionally split compounds when searching. This is not only due to fast typing; sometimes the users might think that the split compound will actually present better results, because it covers a wider range of variations. Bearing in mind that users normally just type their queries straight into the search box, thus triggering the default Google broad match option, the keyword ”Rätsel Lösung” (puzzle solution) would present variations such as ”Rätsellösung” (the correct compound here), ”Rätsel und Lösung”, Rätsel mit Lösung” etc. Thus, most people actully look for the split compound.
If we want to follow SEO best practice, we now have a problem. Our preferred keyword “Rätsel Lösung” cannot be used in exact match as it would be grammatically incorrect. And adding the necessary prepositions will bring it further away from our preferred keyword, making it less likely to rank. However, using the better keyword, “Rätsellösung” should attract less traffic. But will it really?
Interestingly, a look at the top ranking pages for the search query “Rätsellösung” shows some results that use the split compound, either with a hyphen in between (a well-known cheat), or simply in the wrong form. Clearly, some less than glorious German SEO has happened here. But what happens if we search the other way around and type “Rätsel Lösung”?
The first thing we notice is that the top two search results are the same. But something else has happened too. Some pages are shown that contain the key phrase split up, but where the first part of the phrase is actually part of a different compound noun! (Kreuzworträtsel). This makes it very tempting to conclude that one of the more basic assumptions in SEO might have become obsolete; at least for German: Spaces between parts of key phrases are not as essential as we thought. If Google can fish the keyword “Rätsel Lösung” out of the phrase “Kreuzworträtsel Lösungen”, we should not have to be too concerned about how the parts of a split up compound keyword are used in our optimisation. They can even be hidden in completely different compounds, as long as they are still close together.
Coincidence or correlation?
Having digested the results of the example above, we now need to find out whether this is a singular coincidence or if we can establish some clear trends. Does Google treat all compound nouns the same? What happens if we look at compound nouns, where, contrary to our first example, the correct compound has the higher search volume. This should in fact be the case for most common German compound nouns. However, as there can still be significant search volume for the split compound, we want to know whether we need to cover these keywords in our optimisation or if we can rely on Google to do the job for us.
Autobahnmaut (Motorway Toll) is one of those compound nouns. The correct form has the higher search volume, while the split compound still carries significant searches, making it worth targeting.
As we can see, even this search result page shows us pages containing both the correct and the split up keyword. Of the first six pages exactly half have the correct form, the rest have the split compound. Comparing the top 10 ranked pages with the search results for the split term reveals something even more interesting.
Of the ten websites shown on the search result page, seven are the same. And of these, three even have the same ranking position. Intrigued now, we checked for some more terms.
We deliberately chose terms of different complexity, from “travel planning” to “coolant line”. Furthermore, two of the compounds are made up of three elements instead of two (i.e. Kälte-Mittel-Leitung), unlike the previous keywords in my experiments. Still, in all cases at least 70% of the top ranking pages were the same, even for the more complex three part compounds. For the more common terms, 80% were the same and up to 30% had the same ranking position. This clearly shows that Google does have an understanding of compound nouns, as well as a way of showing pages in the search results even if they do not contain the keyword clearly separated or in exact match.
While this research cannot claim to be conclusive, there is a clear indication that, while we should still include incorrectly split compounds in keyword research and ranking reports, there is no real reason to use them in actual page optimisation, running the risk of annoying visitors by using dubious German, making the content less easy to understand and thus risking a higher bounce rate.
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