One constant in search, or the science of search, is that it is always changing.

A recent study, produced by researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York, suggests another dynamic to that truism.

The study concluded that emoticons, irregular spellings and exclamation points in text messages aren’t sloppy or a sign that written language is going down the tubes. Instead, these “textisms” help convey meaning and intent in the absence of spoken conversation.

“In contrast with face-to-face conversation, texters can’t rely on extra-linguistic cues such as tone of voice and pauses, or non-linguistic cues such as facial expressions and hand gestures,” said Binghamton University Professor of Psychology Celia Klin. “In a spoken conversation, the cues aren’t simply add-ons to our words; they convey critical information. A facial expression or a rise in the pitch of our voices can entirely change the meaning of our words.”

A 2016 study led by Klin found that text messages that end with a period are seen as less sincere than text messages that do not end with a period. Klin pursued this subject further, conducting experiments to see if people reading texts understand textisms, asking how people’s understanding of a single-word text (e.g., yeah, nope, maybe) as a response to an invitation is influenced by the inclusion, or absence, of a period.

Klin said that this research is motivated by an interest in taking advantage of a unique moment in time when scientists can observe language evolving in real time.

“What we are seeing with electronic communication is that, as with any unmet language need, new language constructions are emerging to fill the gap between what people want to express and what they are able to express with the tools they have available to them,” said Klin. “The findings indicate that our understanding of written language varies across contexts. We read text messages in a slightly different way than we read a novel or an essay.

Further, all the elements of our texts — the punctuation we choose, the way that words are spelled, a smiley face — can change the meaning. The hope, of course, is that the meaning that is understood is the one we intended. Certainly, it’s not uncommon for those of us in the lab to take an extra second or two before we send texts. We wonder: How might this be interpreted? ‘Hmmm, period or no period? That sounds a little harsh; maybe I should soften it with a “lol” or a winky-face-tongue-out emoji.’”

With trillions of text messages sent each year, we can expect the evolution of textisms, and of the language of texting more generally, to continue at a rapid rate, wrote the researchers. Texters are likely to continue to rely on current textisms, as well to as create new textisms, to take the place of the extra-linguistic and nonverbal cues available in spoken conversations. The rate of change for “talk-writing” is likely to continue to outpace the changes in other forms of English.

“The results of the current experiments reinforce the claim that the divergence from formal written English that is found in digital communication is neither arbitrary nor sloppy,” said Klin. “It wasn’t too long ago that people began using email, instant messaging and text messaging on a regular basis. Because these forms of communication provide limited ways to communicate nuanced meaning, especially compared to face-to-face conversations, people have found other tools.”

Theme’s Take

Trey Robinson, a Managing Partner at Theme Communications, believe the rapidly developing science around text messaging will have a significant impact on search.

“As people’s grammar changes or speech to text emerges those keywords and the long tail of SEO changes and becomes more important,” Robinson said.

An example in today’s world is the growth of speech to text on mobile. This interface produces a slightly different list of long tail keywords which marketers need to consider when buying search and creating content.