What Lasagna Taught Me About the Internet

For online media companies, the World Wide Web has become a game of page views. CHOW is no different—we track things like traffic and search results, and try to figure out not only what will make for great content but also what will generate great traffic. And in that quest we recently discovered that lasagne was one of the most searched-for recipes online. So we developed some new lasagne recipes and assembled a slideshow of all of our lasagne recipes and waited eagerly for the traffic to spike. And waited.

Turns out very few people search for lasagnE. They search for lasagnA. Thus began a debate over which way we should spell the name of the dish. As the main copyeditor for CHOW.com, my first inclination was to vehemently oppose the a version, which I viewed as a misspelling. Technically lasagna is singular, the word for the type of noodle, so you can use it as a modifier (lasagna noodles). But if you're talking about the dish made from those noodles, then it's lasagne, plural. After a bit of contemplation, though, I realized my approach might just be peevish, so I did some unscientific research online and discovered that at this point, how people spell the name of this layered noodle dish is a style choice, not a grammar/spelling rule of some kind. Plus the a spelling won out easily in search results. So we updated our house style guide and changed the spelling on all of our recipes. Traffic from lasagna seekers surged.

Those kinds of changes should make it a helluva lot easier for you, the reader, to find what you want online. But they also mean that you hold some sway in the evolution of language. The Internet lets us track spelling usage and search results and all kinds of other minutiae in real time, which then allows online media folks like us to adjust our content strategies accordingly. So though I will never bow to a request to actively misspell something just for SEO's sake (SEO being "search engine optimization"), I think it's perfectly appropriate to include a common misspelling (say, McDonalds without the apostrophe) in the keywords of a story or recipe to help that item turn up in a user's search results.

Do I think SEO is degrading food terms and general spelling acuity? To a certain degree, I do. If content producers like us always account for misspellings to help users find stuff, isn't that just enabling a creeping laziness? One that perhaps started with text-speak and is compounded by platforms like Twitter? I mean, how will someone ever learn the correct spelling of hors d'oeuvre if they can find what they want with hors dorve?

But I’m also looking at language differently now. Online media companies like CHOW are here to serve the reader as best we can—which is also an age-old guiding principle for copyeditors. Our job on the copy desk is to make the content as correct and clear and readable as possible. And if that means being conversational, flexible, and nonpeevish (split those infinitives! use idiomatic language! change your spelling to lasagna!), then that's exactly what we’ll do.

Photo by Christopher Rochelle / CHOW.com

Deborah Lewis is CHOW's assistant managing editor–slash–copy chief–slash–ScrumMaster. You can follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.