Actually, Google, That's Not What I Meant


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!

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Jan 23, 2010

I just wanted to say that your article on google was informative. I did not no google was doing that with synonyms.

Shawn McCarthy
Jan 25, 2010

I'm guessing this would have implications for indexing as well as serving searches? Would this lessen the need to do detailed keyword research prior to writing a landing page or posting a new ad group? For example, if I'm talking about "PPC Consulting" the assumption would be that I no longer have to worry if I'm using the keywords "SEM Consulting", "Search Engine Marketing Consulting", etc. because Google will recognize these synonyms and index accordingly.

Any thoughts on this?

Elisa Gabbert
Jan 25, 2010

I think it will be interesting to see what the implications are for keyword research. When Google announced that it would personalize search results for everyone, lots of SEOs freaked out. But testing so far has suggested that personalization doesn't completely overhaul the results -- for the most part, the top 10 is the top 10, with some minor re-ordering. So at this point it's difficult to say how much synonyms will change the results for any given keyword. For now, it's probably a safe bet to continue to optimize for synonyms and variations of your primary keyword. There may be some trade-off involved, for example:

  • A high-authority site can rank above a low-authority site without having the exact keyword, just a synonym. Same thing goes for ads with high Quality Scores vs. low Quality Scores.
  • For two sites of equal authority or ads with equal Quality Score, the exact match will rank above the synonym match
If this is true, it's still worthwhile to optimize for all the synonyms and variations to come out on top in the close calls.

Make Use Of « Blog Collection
Jul 07, 2010

[...] exclusively focuses on “Google Adwords” in search results (which are similar but still different concepts: Adsense is the system while ads are the actual advertisements [...]

Johnathan Cox
Sep 23, 2010

You should read Googled by Ken Auletta or at least some other relevant literature. Of course google Adwords is going to come up when you have "word" "google" and "ad" in the same search query. It finds the most relevant data in the query using algorithms based on linking and relevance. Google is the number one technology company in the world, and their Adwords program attracts incredibly heavy traffic so it assigns a greater weight to these links. While others say your that article was informative, in my opinion it was ignorant and heavily biased.
"Google interpreted "ads" as a synonym for "AdWords." Um. This seems wrong to me."

Google DID NOT interpret "ads" as "Adwords". Google interpreted your ENTIRE search query which contained "word", "google", and "ads". Um. This seems RIGHT to me.

On the note of synonyms, they don't "fix bad searches by hand" because they are engineers and they are setting up an infrastructure that allows these "bad searches" to be fixed organically.

I would like to say thank you for consolidating this information. It was very useful.

Elisa Gabbert
Sep 23, 2010

Johnathan, thanks for your comment. If you look again at the search, I didn't search for the word "word" -- I did a site-specific search on our own domain, There is no reason for Google to include the word "word" in the search results just because it appears in our domain. If it's going to do that, it might as well search the body text of each page for "stream" as well, or for "ordst" or "trea" for that matter.

Johnathan Cox
Sep 24, 2010

Interesting. I now understand that you were doing a domain/site specific search. In that case I believe you should have included the "[ ]" symbols. I pulled the following from Google's search basics:

Search within a specific website (site:)
Google allows you to specify that your search results must come from a given website. For example, the query [ iraq ] will return pages about Iraq but only from The simpler queries [ iraq ] or [ iraq New York Times ] will usually be just as good, though they might return results from other sites that mention the New York Times. You can also specify a whole class of sites, for example [ iraq ] will return results only from a .gov domain and [ iraq ] will return results only from Iraqi sites.

Searching only for your domain "" obviously turns a #1 rank.
I understand when you say that it might as well search the body for "stream" or "ordst" , but the words "google" and "ad" were by themselves.

I searched "[ google ads]" and the first result that I received was

Is this the part of your site you were searching for?

Elisa Gabbert
Sep 24, 2010

Using the "site:[URL]" operator before a query allows you to search for results within a single site. As you can see from the screenshot above, the operator worked properly and Google did return results only from our own domain, but returned results for "Google AdWords" instead of "Google ads," which are related, but not really synonyms per se.
Interestingly enough, Google must have decided that "ads" and "AdWords" aren't synonyms, because as you say the results are now closer to what I was looking for at the time. (I wrote this post nine months ago so it's not a big surprise that the SERP has changed.)
Thanks again for commenting.

Elisa Gabbert
Sep 24, 2010

To be clear, it's not necessary to include brackets in the search query -- just the "site:" operator -- try it out for yourself.

Mar 27, 2011

so true -.- fucking google is annoying the hell out of me...
i KNOW what im looking for... dont correct me... goddarnit.. i cant find the things i used to find..

Feb 16, 2013

I HATE google synonyms. The 'did you mean' bullshit was annoying and presumptuous enough; now I have some hack programmer trying to justify his ludicrous salary by messing with something that doesn't need to be messed with. When I search for the word son, I want results for the word son. I don't also want results for the words child, daughter, boy, and baby with no precedence given to the word I actually searched for. If I want results for the synonyms, I'll fucking search for them myself.

Sep 14, 2013

I'm definitely with you there. And if you put it in quotes, it STILL includes synonyms. Very annoying!

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