Brace yourself: You’re about to read an entire article about a dash. Yip: we mean the little horizontal line thingy that some people use to join words together, as in “e-learning” or to make a nose on a smiley. Don’t blame us – we didn’t start it. E learning SEO is a compounding problem which, regrettably, we’re unlikely to put entirely to bed today in this article. But the question of exactly how marketing motivated people like us should write the word “eLearning” (or e-learning, or even e learning) has divided dash believers and non-believers in the industry for too long. Here at Now Towers we think it’s time to do what we can to bring these fighting factions together.

Google search an answer and ye may find

No point bickering over meaningless aesthetics: the only measurable bit of difference that the syllable separator could possibly contribute to good content marketing is surely any potentially positive (or negative) impact on online search: If using the term “e-learning” rather than “eLearning” or “e Learning” can be proven to boost a website’s page ranking in Google, Yahoo and Bing even slightly, we should use it. If not – let’s ditch it.

It’s a simple point to make, but a complex one to prove. The Google Trends tool helps us make an initial assessment.
Worldwide search trend for e learning, e-learning and elearning

In the graph below we’ve used Google Trends to compare the relative search volumes of the three varieties of the keyword “elearning”. It shows that, in terms of worldwide search, “elearning” – written as one word – has been attracting more searches than “e-Learning” with a hyphen since about 2008. Armed with this bit of insight we might start to conclude that it’s time ditch the dash.

Don’t jump to conclusions and do a “find and replace all” just yet however: turns out that the world’s hyphen lovers and haters are not dispersed all that evenly across the globe. If you’re selling predominantly into the US then you’re dealing with a nation of hyphen haters. In European hotspots like France and Spain, syl-la-bi-fi-ca-tion is still the acceptable norm, although usage is in decline. As usual, the Brits don’t seem to care much and will search for any variety of the keywords in approximately equal measure (see the graphs below).

US search trend for e learning, e-learning and elearning

UK search trend for e learning, e-learning and elearning


For the moment then, the global picture is one that looks to be following the trend in the US. More people are ditching the dash when they search and, overall, the trend is towards the US keyword of choice: “elearning”.

So when it comes to organic search, it might make good sense to settle on the word “elearning” because this form of the word is the favoured search option in the US and is growing steadily in popularity in most other regions.

Well sort of, except that search engines tend to understand synonyms pretty well these days and all three versions of the word “elearning” are already strongly associated with each other (i.e.: type “elearning” into Google and you’ll be presented with the question “Did you mean ‘e learning'”. This means that any measurable benefits of using the term “eLearning” today are subtle at best – they may improve with time as the term’s popularity continues its upwards trend. The eLearning Network provides a decent indicator because the organisation has historically favoured the term “eLearning” over a long period and the term itself has become more popular over time: Search for eLearning in Google today and the eLN site is listed in the top ten results. Search for “e learning” or “e-Learning” in Google and the eLN drops down to just outside the top ten.

The strong association of all three terms suggests that much Search Engine Optimisation and backlinking would be required before any clear competitive edge could be realised. More importantly perhaps, while it’s true that “eLearning” looks like it will soon become the global search term of choice, the fact that Google treats hyphenated words as two separate words makes for a pretty uneven fight. Google doesn’t really differentiate between “e learning” and “e-learning” so even in the US, where trending towards the term “elearning” is highest, the no hyphen version needs to convincingly beat both before any significant benefits are likely to be realised.

OK, so if the navel gazing over the dash in e-learning is to be parked for another day, what should we all be doing now to boost our business’ relevance for the procurers searching the web for elearning products today? Well first and foremost, it helps if you know what kind of people, in what kind of industries, are currently searching for the things you might be able to sell to them. Google Insights’ top searches and rising searches charts helps us work this out. Surprise surprise: Over the past couple of weeks in the US, “army e learning” has rocketed to the top of the rising searches chart, which means that savvy marketers in North America are now battling it out to be first to publish new content that promotes their business’ defence credentials. Meanwhile in the UK it’s growing interest in what eLearning can bring to the NHS and other health provision businesses that e-learning providers should be focused on if they want to keep content synced up with current search trends. In France, it’s worth considering some focused content marketing around the phrase “anglais e learning ” right now if language courses are part of your portfolio.

None of this is rocket science, but it is just a tiny bit geeky. Let’s face it: keyword analysis, split testing, placement tools and search traffic estimators are useful but they’re not really marketing cool. What most of us are really interested in is how creative ideas, great content, images, designs and debates can connect our business with customers and compel people towards action.

The key is being able to balance the need to be different, distinctive and unique for the humans we want to sell to, with the need to be highly catagorisable and easily indexable for the search engines that carry our message out to customers? The fact that the fundamental debate over the dash in e-learning still rages on suggests there’s a long way to go.

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