How to use emoji for SEO and digital communication

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They have been the word of the year in 2015 and 2019 (paradoxical, since they are not a word), they have become a work of art exhibited at MoMA, they have been the protagonists of a (unsuccessful) film, since 2014 years there has been a world day to celebrate them, and even Google allows their use in SERPs, both in titles and even in URLs: we are talking about emoji, the funny little faces that from phones to smartphones have spread all over the Web, imposing themselves as a new tool for quick and direct communication.

What emoji are

Emoji are small images or icons used in various online settings to express an emotion, idea or concept in digital messages.

They are essentially small, colorful symbols, logograms, ideograms or smilies that we can insert into the text of electronic messages and web pages; there are currently more than 3,600 variations, available in a very wide range of options from smiling faces to hearts, from foods to flags, and spanning various genres, including facial expressions, common objects, places, weather types and animals.

It is simplistic to think about how they are more than just icons: in fact, emoji have a “meaning” beyond their visual representation and can influence the way we perceive and interpret virtual communication. Indeed, their main function is to integrate the emotional nuances that are often missing in typed conversations at a distance.

The term “emoji” is derived from the Japanese words “e” (picture) and “moji” (character), and the assonance with the English words “emotion” and “emoticon” is purely coincidental. In a narrower sense, by this word we refer only to the little drawings represented as coded characters, but sometimes it also applies by extension to animated stickers used in instant messaging.

The history of emoji

The origin of the yellow faces is still quite controversial: according to the currently most accepted theory, the creation of emoji dates back to the late 1990s in Japan. In all likelihood, the invention of the first set of emoji is due to the SoftBank company, which in 1997 launched a phone capable of supporting 90 distinct pictographic symbols on the Japanese market.

In 1999 came the famous set of 176 emoji created by Docomo and Shigetaka Kurita, long thought to be the first ever, sized 12 pixels per side and inspired by manga culture, Chinese characters, and street signs, which was implemented in the Japanese i-mode system, a kind of web platform that connected cell phones to the Internet.

It is precisely this grid of symbols that in 2016 became a work exhibited at MoMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, in a temporary exhibition dedicated to new forms of art and communication. “If you think about it, we can’t live without emoji today,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA when presenting the work: in less than twenty years, the smiley face revolution was complete!

Le emoji in mostra al MoMA

The differences between emoji and emoticons

Before the advent of emoji, we had emoticons (and perhaps even before that, hieroglyphics), those sequences of punctuation characters that allowed us to express emotions – such as :-), X-) and :O – and above all to save space in expensive text messages.

With the evolution of messaging, a revolution was also needed in the alphabet of virtual communication, and these symbols also underwent a transformation, becoming more and more fascinating and appealing.

Basically, in fact, emoji are very similar to emoticons, but they have obvious evolutionary differences: first of all, they are true graphic images and not simple typographical approximations created using strings of textual characters (mainly standard punctuation symbols) like precisely emoticons, which since the 1980s have been used to suggest key human facial expressions in the course of online conversations and beyond.

But the great innovation lies in the fact that emoji add more depth and realism to the emoticons that preceded them.

For this reason, it is not excessive to say that they are much more than just a digital language or a form of nonverbal communication: over the years they have influenced fashion, art, cinema and even eroticism (and in fact some of these symbols have a double meaning that is not even too latent, at least in everyday use), becoming almost mini-avatars that express our moods and simplify our communications.

Today it seems almost impossible to communicate without including one or more of these icons, and a certain etiquette of communication with emoji has even developed. In addition, the introduction of new icons is at the center of many debates, concerning issues such as inclusiveness and different gender expressions, disability, the use of weapons, and even geopolitical issues related to the introduction of certain emoji.

In short: they are not just symbols, but a fundamental part of the way we communicate, express ourselves and represent certain values, and like any language they have different nuances, different uses and different levels of seriousness, depending on how we use them. That’s why it is important to know them, to find out their applications at the digital marketing level.

What emoji mean and what they are used for

Image, character and writing: the term emoji comes from the fusion of Japanese kanji to identify these three elements, thus describing the meaning and function of these smilies, a form of “writing by image.

Emoji are pictographic symbols (pictographs), usually in comic form, used within textual conversations to express ideas, feelings, moods, and personalities. Indeed, they represent faces, weather conditions, vehicles, tools, buildings, dishes or beverages, foods, plants and animals, and then again activities, emotions and so on.

As the head of MoMa also pointed out, in the past twenty plus years these symbols have transcended Japanese borders and spread throughout the Web and far beyond. Born as an element to break the “communication and education barriers that paralyzed the Japanese,” in the words of Shigetaka Kurita, over time emoji have become a perfect form of communication for the speed of the Web and instant conversations via Whatsapp and the like. And it is no coincidence that even Google has noticed this, which, as we shall see, has had to adapt and adjust its SERPs to this new language.

Indeed, if emoji are most commonly used in social media platforms and messaging applications, their use is also expanding to other digital channels, such as email marketing, and they are now also frequent in blog headlines and even in website metadata to attract attention and engage audiences.

The possible critical issues: ambiguities and cultural misunderstandings

Beware, however: despite being an extremely popular communication tool, emoji can present some critical issues and ambiguities, and various studies and scientific research have shown they are often subject to misunderstandings, related both to the cultural or contextual interpretation of the symbol and to the different display of the emoji depending on the device or operating system used.

A first critical aspect concerns the cultural or contextual interpretation of the emoji: when we choose an image, we have a certain meaning in mind, but the same symbol may not evoke the same thoughts in the recipient. For example, a system has been developed in China in past years to use emoji in a subversive way, in which a smiley face may be sent to convey an attitude of disdain or derision.

A second problem involves technology and branding: when we choose an emoji from a list, it is encoded in a nongraphic way during transmission. If the sender and recipient do not use the same software or operating system, the same emoji may be displayed differently on the recipient’s device, and small changes in appearance can completely alter the perceived meaning.

Finally, a study conducted by the German Studies Institute at Ruhr-Universität Bochum found that although most people can easily understand an emoji when it directly replaces a word, people take about 50 percent longer to understand the emoji. This suggests that despite their popularity, emoji can make communication more complex and prone to misunderstanding.

The numbers of emoji: trivia and relevant facts

Despite these critical issues, emoji have steadily gained worldwide acceptance, so much so that they are used in everyday text messages as well as in professional contexts and customer engagement campaigns.

There are some facts that, beyond their inherent curiosity, can give us a sense of how relevant these symbols are today.

  • 92 percent of the world’s online population uses emoji, according to statistics released by Unicode, the global IT standard for text and emoji.
  • More than 3,600 emoji currently exist and the number is constantly growing, also distinguished by communication channel, from Apple to Google, Facebook to Twitter and Whatsapp.
  • In recent years, the symbols have become more and more extensive and inclusive (also to avoid all forms of discrimination, manipulation and misleading use).
  • More than 90 percent of people who communicate digitally use at least one emoji.
  • World Emoji Day, is an unofficial event that celebrates emoji and takes place annually on July 17. World Emoji Day was first held in 2014, at the initiative of Jeremy Burge, the founder of Emojipedia (the website that aims to be the encyclopedia of emojii, which collects all the symbols and allows people to look up the meaning and common usage of all the emoji characters in the Unicode standard), and the date was chosen because it is the one that actually appears on the emoji Calendar on Apple systems.
  • In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries elected the “Face with tears of joy” emoji as its Word of the Year, recognizing its impact on popular culture. Oxford Dictionaries President Caspar Grathwohl said that “traditional alphabetic scripts have struggled to meet the rapid and visually focused demands of 21st century communication; it is not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill these gaps: it is flexible, immediate and beautifully infuses tone.”
  • In 2019, the Fundación del Español Urgente elected “emoji” as a word of the Spanish language because it is “undeniable the impact of this non-word on our communication with others, bringing agility and concision to the written form, allowing gestural and intentional nuances to be added to conversations that would otherwise be lost.” Moreover, these graphic symbols are “perhaps the closest thing to a universal language that humanity has ever created,” the foundation’s motivation concludes.
  • In July 2013 (the year Emojipedia, which collects all information on the topic, was founded), only about 4 out of every 100 tweets contained at least one emoji (4.25 percent), which then numbered just 720. Over these 10 years, this number has grown exponentially: data collected during March 2023 indicated that nearly 27 out of every 100 tweets (26.7%) contained at least one of the current 3,664 emoji characters.

  • In 2017, the film Emoji was released in movie theaters around the world, a feature-length animated film that did not do badly at the box office, but collected bad marks from critics: just as an example, we mention the four Razzie Awards won in the same year and the Hollywood Reporter’s ranking of the worst films of the decade 2010-2019, in which Emoji climbs up to fourth place overall.
  • Global use of emoji on Twitter increased by about 724 percent between the beginning of 2013 and 2023. More specifically, each month between July 2022 and March 2023 set a new record for emoji use on Twitter.
  • And exactly  “Face with Tears of Joy” has been the most popular emoji worldwide since 2013. The only emoji to have ever surpassed the Face with Tears of Joy on Twitter is the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji.
  • The “OK with Hands” emoji was once the most popular gesture emoji on Twitter, but it is now surpassed by “Folded Hands” and “Thumbs Up.”

  • Speaking of socials: according to some statistics, on Facebook more than 700 million graphic symbols are used every day in posts, and on Messenger chat, more than 900 million emoji are sent every day without any other text. On Twitter about 250 million emoji are exchanged every day, a rate of 3.2 billion a year, and on Whatsapp the numbers are even more resounding.
  • Emoji and Email Marketing. According to a report by Experian, the use of emoji in email subject lines can increase email opens by 56 percent-demonstrating how effective emoji can be in capturing attention and stimulating interaction.
  • Emoji and Branding. According to a survey by Appboy, 86 percent of Internet users said they like emoji. This suggests that the use of emoji can help brands create an emotional connection with their audience.
  • Emoji and Social Media. According to a report by Quintly, Facebook posts that include emoji have a 15.4 percent higher interaction rate than those without.
    According to a study by WordStream, using an emoji in a Tweet can increase engagement by 25 percent compared to posts without emoji; on the other hand, using an emoji in Facebook posts can increase shares by 33 percent and interactions with your post by 57 percent.
  • Emoji and Generations. According to a survey by Adobe, 93% of Generation Z and 90% of Millennials believe emoji express their feelings better than words. Other surveys reveal that 68% of Millennials confess that they feel more comfortable “expressing emotions using images like emoji” instead of text.

What are the most commonly used emoji and what they mean

Each emoji has a unique and specific meaning, which can vary by context and culture, as mentioned, although in general they are quite understandable and universal, useful for adding a level of emotion and personality to digital messages.

For example, the smiling face with heart-shaped eyes is often used to express love or admiration, while the smiley face with tears of joy is used to indicate laughter or amusement. These are the 20 most well-known and used emoji in the online world, with small description of the meaning.

    1. Face with Tears of Joy. 😂 This emoji represents a face crying with tears of joy. It is often used to express laughter or extreme amusement in response to something particularly funny.
    2. Smiling Face with Heart-Eyes. 😍 This emoji shows a smiling face with hearts instead of eyes, used to express love, admiration or enthusiasm for something or someone.
    3. Rolling on the Floor Laughing. 🤣 This emoji represents a face laughing so hard that it rolls on the floor. It is used to indicate an even higher level of amusement than the “Face with Tears of Joy.”
    4. Red Heart. ❤️ This emoji represents a classic red heart. It is used to express love, affection or other positive emotions.
    5. Face Blowing a Kiss. 😘 This emoji shows a face blowing a kiss with a heart. It is used to express affection or flirtation.
    6. OK Hand. 👌 This emoji shows a hand forming a circle with thumb and index finger, the universal symbol for “OK.” It is used to indicate approval or acceptance.
    7. Loudly Crying Face. 😭 This emoji represents a face crying openly. It is used to express sadness, grief or despair.
    8. Unamused Face. 😒 This emoji shows a face with an expression of boredom or slight disappointment. It is used to express dissatisfaction or lack of interest.
    9. Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes.😊 This emoji depicts a smiling face with smiling eyes. It is used to express happiness, satisfaction or friendship.
    10. Weary Face. 😩 This emoji shows a face with frowning eyebrows and an open mouth, as if exhausted. It is used to express tiredness, exasperation or stress.
    11. Beaming Face with Smiling Eyes. 😁 This emoji shows a very happy face with smiling eyes. It is used to express joy, excitement or satisfaction.
    12. Smirking Face. 😏 This emoji depicts a face with a mischievous or satisfied smirk. It is often used to express irony, sarcasm or a sense of superiority.
    13. Folded Hands. 🙏 This emoji shows two joined hands. It can be interpreted as a gesture of prayer, but it is often used to express gratitude, or to say “please” or “thank you,” although it can sometimes cause misunderstanding and be used (or understood) as a “exchange of 5” sign.
    14. Sparkles. ✨ This emoji shows three small, bright stars. It is used to express excitement, magic or to indicate something new or neat.
    15. Fire. 🔥 This emoji represents a flame. It is often used to express that something is “hot” or “on fire,” in the sense of being exciting or exceptional.
    16. Smiling Face with Hearts. 🥰 This emoji shows a smiling face surrounded by hearts. It is used to express love, affection or extreme happiness.
    17. Face with Rolling Eyes. 🙄 This emoji depicts a face with rolling eyes. It is used to express boredom, sarcasm or frustration.
    18. Person Facepalming. 🤦 This emoji shows a person covering his face with his hand. It is used to express embarrassment, disappointment or exasperation.
    19. Person Shrugging. 🤷 This emoji represents a person shrugging their shoulders. It is used to express uncertainty, ignorance or indifference.
    20. Grinning Face with Sweat. 😅 This emoji shows a smiling face with a drop of sweat. It is used to express relief, embarrassment or to indicate that you are working hard.
    21. See-No-Evil Monkey. 🙈 It depicts one of Japan’s three famous “wise monkeys,” also known as “Mizaru” (along with the can’t-hear monkey and the can’t-talk monkey); it refers to the proverb “see no evil,” which means to avoid watching immoral or evil behavior or actions. In everyday use, this emoji is often used to express embarrassment, shame, or a sense of “don’t want to see” in response to an embarrassing situation or message that the user would rather ignore. It can also be used to indicate that someone is voluntarily turning a blind eye to a certain situation.
    22. Thinking Face.🤔 The emoji depicts a person with a thoughtful expression, with a fist brought to his or her mouth in a classic gesture of reflection; it is often used to indicate thought, reflection or deep consideration, but also to express uncertainty and curiosity, or to indicate that one is thinking about something or making a decision.

Emoji, SEO and Google: all the information to use them to the best advantage

We have written before that Google has also somewhat accepted the spread of emoji and has adapted its platforms to accommodate these symbols, which are then shown both in organic SERPs and in Google Ads promotional spaces – where some ads contain emoji directly in the referring URL, which thus appears more enticing and enticing to users than the classic flat link.

Google mostra le emoji in URL

Specifically, Google’s algorithms are capable of understanding emoji in content or metadata (e.g., in title tags or meta descriptions) and showing them in search results as part of the organic snippet.

It follows, as is easy to guess, that we can use “relevant, useful and fun” emoji in fields such as SEO title or meta description if targeting analysis reveals that these graphic symbols are appropriate for the context and can encourage user clicks, thus affecting click-through rate, or even as a method to differentiate from competitors and attract more curious looks.

We should not think of miraculous solutions, let us be clear, because it is evident that emoji do not play any important role in SEO: in any case, they can (sometimes) improve page visibility or improve relevance for certain search queries, although their impact is mainly in terms of engagement.

The relationship between emoji and Google: a conflicting history

In fact, as this article reconstructs, Google has often changed its opinion and way of handling emoji among search results, in a kind of love-hate relationship with these graphic symbols that has also generated confusion among marketers. Just to go over the main moments of this history:

  • 2013. Google allows emoji to be displayed in site links, paid ads or even in some organic search results, especially from mobile.

Esempio di risultato Google con Emoji nel 2012 - da Mangools

  • 2015. Emoji begin to disappear from SERPs, considered a “waste of time” and distraction.
  • 2017. Google returns to showing emoji again in SERPs, which can be used for organic search results or in various mobile and desktop search snippets (as long as relevant and useful to Google users).
  • 2020. Google improves its ranking and indexing systems that allow the search engine to understand the true meaning behind individual emoji or other special characters.

Are emoji useful for SEO?

And so, given how Google views these symbols, does it make sense to include them in the metadata of our pages? What kind of support can emoji offer to SEO?

Actually, and as mentioned above, we certainly should not think that there is a direct link, because emoji will not directly affect site ranking in any way. However, there are some more general SEO aspects that emoji can affect, positively or negatively:

  • Page Relevance. Since 2016, users can do Google searches by including emoji in the query: this generates very different SERPs than textual ones, which we can intercept precisely by using these symbols in the metadata and page content (in the images a comparison between the query “pizza recipe” written textually and with emoji).
  • Organic snippet visibility. Using emoji in metadata could help our pages stand out from the rest of the organic search results ranked in Google Search. In addition to the title and description, the emoji could also be included in the URL, but not all browsers may be able to “read” it correctly. It is important to know, however, Google may simply ignore the emoji we use or even truncate important parts of the snippets, modifying them in the way it sees fit.
  • CTR in Google Search. Emoji in metadata can improve or hurt the overall CTR of web page ranking in Google Search, depending on contexts, the ability to use this alphabet, and audience perception. In other words, emoji are not a magic wand that will automatically increase website performance.
  • UX on the page. If placed and used strategically, emoji can make almost any content more visually appealing and engaging without making it look less professional.

How to use emoji in content: best practices and tips

Broadly speaking, emoji can help make a brand more recognizable, add context to messages, and appeal to audience emotions on a deeper level.

From this point of view, the inclusion of emoji in social messages or content can add an additional layer of personality and relatability for the brand: that is, it can humanize the brand and help it connect more directly with the audience, speaking their language through the emoji they use daily in text messages, chats, and personal posts on social.

Closely related to this point is the engagement aspect: basically, people use emoji because they are quick, fun and engaging, and if we use them correctly we can connect more directly with readers through their friendly and informal appearance.

Adding emoji in marketing copy or content can also add additional context to messages: in the same way that an exclamation point can change the tone communicated by the message, adding an emoji can convey emotions that we cannot do through text alone.

What makes the difference is the conscious use of this tool. In fact, experts recommend starting by carefully evaluating whether adding emoji to the marketing strategy is in line with the brand’s tone and audience sentiment. For this, target demographics should be analyzed to understand if, how, and when to include these symbols, as well as to find out which types of emoji are potentially best suited for the target audience. Our goal is to be sure that the message enhanced by emoji matches what our audience values and shares, whether on social or other mediums.

Also, it is critical to do careful research to find out the meanings of different emoji before using them, because the last thing we want is to publicize finding out that the emoji we choose has a completely different meaning on the Internet or is misunderstood due to display issues on different devices.

Another relevant aspect, although emoji may seem to us a great way to humanize the brand and better intercept users, exaggerating or using emoji that the audience does not like can result in the failure of the strategy and may result from inadequate research.

From a practical point of view, however, these are some tips for using emoji correctly in site content as well:

  • Do research before implementing them. Take a look at competitors in the SERP, see how they are doing and what kind of results they are getting, and start testing the use of relevant emoji, monitoring the performance of the content thus optimized.
  • Using emoji to emphasize titles, descriptions and social posts.
  • Use emoji to feature lists and make them more appealing and shareable.
  • Use emoji to break up large sections. If the article appears as a series of large blocks of text, emoji can make content more digestible, readable, and lightweight.
  • Use emoji sparingly. Excessive use of emoji can make content seem spammy and misleading, or at the very least “childish”-we need balance, because our goal is to grab someone’s attention long enough to get them to read the entire content and potentially make the conversion intended by the page.
  • Choose relevant and consistent emoji. The emoji we use must be relevant to the content and brand identity, so as not to send the wrong and misleading messages.

Emoji and marketing, mixed data on usefulness and engagement

Beloved or hated, certainly used and impossible to miss: even from what has been written, it is clear that emoji are not just a costume phenomenon, then, nor a passing fad, but practically a more direct and quicker form of communication, suited to the timeliness of new media and the increasingly elusive attention span of readers.

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