Actually, Google, That's Not What I Meant

Elisa Gabbert
April 3, 2015

If you're interested in the semantics of search, Google's announcement this week that it is now bolding synonyms in search results probably turned your head. (In fact, you might have noticed this happening before the official announcement.)

In a post titled "Helping Computers Understand Language" on the Official Google Blog, Google engineer Steven Baker writes:

An irony of computer science is that tasks humans struggle with can be performed easily by computer programs, but tasks humans can perform effortlessly remain difficult for computers.

I don't know if I'd call this an irony. Humans are better at some things, computers are better at others. You can say the same thing about bees, buzz saws, and evolution. But identifying misuses of the word "irony" is so 1996, so let's move along. The point is, Google wants computers – search engines, specifically – to understand human language better. And it's collected so much search query and user behavior data that it's getting closer to that goal:

The goal of a search engine is to return the best results for your search, and understanding language is crucial to returning the best results. A key part of this is our system for understanding synonyms […] our measurements show that synonyms affect 70 percent of user searches across the more than 100 languages Google supports. We took a set of these queries and analyzed how precise the synonyms were, and were happy with the results: For every 50 queries where synonyms significantly improved the search results, we had only one truly bad synonym.

It's hard to argue with hard data; if the results are highly relevant 98% of the time then it makes sense to (prominently) include pages with synonyms. Probably, I do not represent the average user of Google, but I feel like I often fall in that unlucky 2% – getting results that are not what I wanted. (Of course, Google kind of covers its ass with that "truly"; maybe what I consider to be bad results are not truly bad.)

Take this search, which I performed on 1/4/10:

Bad synonyms in Google SERP

I was looking specifically for a page on our site about Google ads, but Google interpreted "ads" as a synonym for "AdWords." Um. This seems wrong to me. Yes, Google AdWords serves up Google ads … but to me the phrases mean totally different things. AdWords is an advertising platform. "Ads" refers to the individual advertisements. Occasionally, I'll run a search and Google will ask me, "Did you mean X?" and I'll wish I had the option of telling it, "NO, I didn't, actually!" (Wouldn't that data be useful to them?) But in this case (and presumably this is true for all results with synonyms), I don't even see that prompt.

What are others saying about Google's new synonym policy?

Andy Beal of Marketing Pilgrim takes issue with Google's longwinded announcement ("If Google’s explanation of its code is anything like its actual code, it must be very bloated!"), but thinks "it’s actually a pretty smart piece of technology."

In a comment on his own wrap-up post on SEO by the Sea, Bill Slawski remarks that "for every 50 queries they only had one 'truly' bad synonym – even though that’s a small number, in context it’s still a lot of searches. I hope they find a way to reduce that number to a much smaller percentage." Agreed.

Jamie Forrest focuses on Google's professed method of improving the accuracy of these results—not by fixing bad synonyms by hand, as Baker said, but by trying "to discover general improvements to our algorithms to fix the problems." Forrest writes:

I infer from this that Google doesn’t typically fix any bad search results by hand. They would much rather fix the underlying algorithm than hard code a bunch of corner cases. […] At first glance you might think that Google makes this choice because it’s right architecturally–because it’s cleaner and easier [to] maintain. But I think the bigger reason is that Google cannot be seen to be tipping its hand.

Matt McGee calls attention to some power user search tips to turn off synonyms (good to know!) or force additional synonyms:

The official post also mentions that users can turn off synonyms by putting a plug sign (+) before a word in your query, or by putting the query in quotation marks.

Not mentioned in either post is that you can use the tilde symbol (~) to force Google to show additional synonyms (and related words) for your query. For example, a search for [~murder statistics] leads Google to bold words like “crime,” “crime statistics,” “suicide statistics,” “criminal,” and more.

On Search Engine Watch, Nathania Johnson notes that "SEO copywriters would be diligent to consider the possibility of expansion of synonyms should Google like how their new feature plays out among searchers." I wonder, though, if this move will actually make inclusion of synonyms less important for copywriters. If a page on developing photos in coffee (what's that all about anyway?) will now capture search traffic for the query "pictures developed in coffee," maybe you don't have to worry about including the word "pictures" on the page? As Google's synonym algorithm gets smarter, the synonym part of keyword research might be simplified.

Other Highlights from the Week

A few more posts worth pointing your eyes at:

  • Speaking of copywriting, Giovanna at PPC Blog delivers a meaty post on PPC copywriting, claiming that "there's a lot of nonsense written about copywriting" and the most important factor in copy that sells is making "the right offer to the right audience." She offers some great tips for understanding your market and who you're competing against.
  • Over at Search Engine Journal, Julie Joyce shares some thoughts about purple prose and link building—specifically, your prose should not be purple if what you want is to grab people's attention and generate a link. It should be brief, clear, and to the point.
  • On Techipedia, guest poster Samir Balwani asks "Is Social Media Worth it for You?" He says that some industries, like restaurants and online companies, can see a big return from investment in social media, but other businesses, like those based on impulse buys, won't find it to be a viable strategy.
  • In a guest post on Search Engine Land, George Michie says "The Pundits Are Wrong! Don’t Cut Off Your Tail." He argues that broad match is no substitute for long-tail keyword marketing, especially for large-scale paid search campaigns.

Have a good weekend!

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Sr. Manager of Content Marketing and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.