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Saturday, April 13, 2024

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Numbers: The Most Universal Language Of Search

I promised that on my return from China and the far east I would share some insights. Today, I plan to delve into the global success of numbers. No, I’m not referring to counting your money or calculating your average page views per day, but rather looking at how “numerals” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 0) have really taken over the world and dominate in a way in which the Latin alphabet in which I’m writing now has not. In part, I want to try to explain why numbers are so popular with websites in the far east.

First, a bit of history. It may surprise you to learn that “numerals” as I shall refer to symbols which refer to numbers in this post, evolved very differently from other written characters. You may recall that Roman numerals, in use prior to our present system, consisted of “letters” combined together to create numbers, so “IV” represents four and “VIII” is eight. Even though Roman numbers used roughly the same Latin characters we use today, they evolved from a system used by earlier Italians and Dalmatians based around notching “tally sticks” where the number of notches indicated the number along the lines of “IIIII” meaning “five”. These tally systems evolved by using other symbols, such as “/\” to represent multiples (often fives) to save having to spend all day notching your valuable sticks. However, the key point is that they were not numerals as we know them today.

A bus stop in Arabic, French and Numbers

This picture illustrates Arabic, French and Numbers all working together to describe a bus stop!

Thankfully, all our lives were made simpler by two Indian mathematicians. “Aryabhata” developed “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9” in the fifth century. But somehow, he forgot to create the “0” or zero and that was left to “Brahmagupta” some one hundred years later. So, unbelievably, humans were writing numbers for several thousand years without being able to represent “zero.” The numerals were adopted by Persian mathematicians in India, passed onto Arabs and thereby transmitted to Europe and are now known as “Hindu-Arabic numerals.” Over the centuries—and even prior to the much more recent evolution of the web—these numerals have become commonplace all over the world, even if that means that they sometimes sit alongside and parallel with local numeric systems.

So, for instance, it is now typical for car registration plates all over the world to feature Hindo-Arabic numerals.

Why Are “Numerals” Significant?

At many conferences, I’ve talked about the complexities of systems for inputting characters into computers and how “Qwerty” keyboards, and qwerty variants, dominate the computer scene but simply cannot hack it for complex alphabets such as Chinese, regardless of whether that’s simplified or traditional style Chinese characters.

In fact, Chinese has had a few problems with other communication systems in other realms in the past—take the telegraph for instance. From 1871, Chinese characters were given a numeric code of four numerals to represent them known as diànbàoma. Hence Chinese and Hindo-Arabic numerals became inextricably linked even at the end of the 19th century and are used still extensively today for computer input and for security purposes.

Why Are Numerals Important In Search?

You may have noticed that not only are numerals an important content component for Chinese and other far eastern websites, they are often an important part of domain names or are used as the whole domain name. W3C has recently been launching “internationalized domain names” which means that domains can now contain characters from pretty much any alphabet required; they cite that fact that making the web more usable locally everywhere will open the web to a wider audience of global citizens.

Numerals are connected with this. For a Chinese web user to type a web address which features Chinese characters but a dot com at the end, still requires them to understand and use the two different character sets which is just that bit extra effort when navigating the web. But guess what? Numbers are so universal, they make it easy.

One of the reasons numerals are so popular in the east is because virtually everyone understands and uses them in their daily lives regardless of which language they speak—and when navigating to a Chinese website it feels as if they are navigating in Chinese and yet they are using characters we might think of as western.

Numbers In Other Languages?

For my argument to hold water, namely that numerals are the most universal of characters, that would mean that in addition to Chinese, we would also need Russian, Japanese and Arabic speakers to use the same numerals too. Fortunately, as numerate Arabs were amongst the first to popularize their use, you can rest assured that the numerals are well understood in the Arabic world—although take care as in some parts of the pan-Arab world older forms of the characters do still exist and are used but they are generally still connected to the same family.

You’ll be pleased to learn that—alongside all other European languages including Greek—Russian uses the same characters. The Japanese will also use the older form of Chinese numerals—but in daily lives the Arabic characters win out.

So, basically, it’s a full set. In no other domain of language does anything win universality by such a large margin.

How To Use Numbers In Search?

As the structure and development of the web was all about making numbers (in this case IP addresses) easier to remember and navigate to, it’s ironic that I should be saying that numbers can be used to improve search and communication—but they can. To help you global audience navigate your site, understand its structure or check up on various products, numbers have a big advantage in that they need no translation.

Here are a few examples of how you could use numbers to help with SEO or with usability:

  • Name your products by number
  • Use page numbers to navigate presentations or different levels
  • Use numeric domain names—perhaps for special campaigns
  • Keep letters out of your SKU codes
  • Use numerals for discount codes and make them global

Does Anyone Search For Numbers?

Yes, people do search for numbers sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Using Google’s Insight tools you can get the following intriguing results where the country is the most popular location for that particular search shown in double quotes—yes in each case a numeral:

  • “0” – China
  • “1” – Vietnam
  • “2” – Israel
  • “3” – Vietnam
  • “4” – Thailand
  • “5” – Thailand
  • “6” – China
  • “7” – Turkmenistan
  • “8” – Turkmenistan
  • “9” – Vietnam
  • “10” – Vietnam

Note that in all cases, eastern countries are the winners!

One word of warning—numbers can also bring problems too. If you’re naming a product, you should take advice as to how lucky or relevant that number is—as some numbers are not well regarded by some cultures including the Chinese. Often this is to do with how those numbers sound when spoken. As always, take advice from someone who is familiar with local culture.

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