Since the beginning of this year, Google has been gradually including synonyms for the words that users are searching for in its results. It hasn’t necessarily been a dramatic change on the face of things, nor does it mean that Google always displays synonymous results. But there could be SEO implications to their use of synonyms in search results as well.
Google has already explained that they don’t use synonyms for everything, because that would mean that search results could be inflated with irrelevant results. Instead, Google says that synonyms will only be used for entered search terms when it’s necessary in order to return more relevant results.
What Google Has To Say
In an official Google blog post, titled Helping computers understand language, Google software engineer Steven Baker explained that their synonym system is the result of five years of research.
“Most of the time, you probably don’t notice when your search involves synonyms, because it happens behind the scenes. However, our measurements show that synonyms affect 70 percent of user searches across the more than 100 languages Google supports.”
Matt Cutts, in his blog about Google Synonyms, clarified that it could be a very subtle effect though.
“For every 50 queries where synonyms significantly improved the search results,” the blog goes on to say, “we had only one truly bad synonym.”
In this case, a “bad synonym” means one that wasn’t actually related to the original search term that was actually used.
How Google Synonyms Work
Basically, if you search for a certain term through Google, the search engine will also consider possible synonyms for that word. A good example of this would be a search for “song words.”
If you search “song words,” Google will also consider sites which deal with “lyrics,” because lyrics are a synonym for song words.
In some searches, as another example, it will look at both “photo’s” and “pictures” if you search for one of them.
Google has always formatted the words you entered into the search engine in a bold font, in the titles and descriptions of the results that come up. They’re doing the same thing now with the synonyms. So, if you’re paying attention, you can see where they’ve used a synonym instead of the words that you actually entered.
For users, this can be a great addition to the way that Google chooses which results to display for you. For search engine optimisers though, this has raised some interesting questions.
SEO Implications Of Google Synonyms
Google’s use of synonyms in search has led search engine optimisers to wonder if it will now be possible to rank on the first page of Google for keywords that don’t even appear on your page.
In theory, I suppose it is possible. In fact, I did a search for “song words” and the top 3 sites were all ones that targeted the word “lyrics.” So yes, it is possible, because Google sees those two terms as being interchangeable.
In practice though, it’s not all that likely to affect your site, other than hopefully making you think a little more about how your target market is searching for you.
As mentioned earlier, Google has assured website owners that synonyms will only come into play when the search engine is confident that using synonyms will improve the results being rendered by Google, so as long as your site is topical and relevant to the search, you don’t really need to worry about being supplanted by a synonym.
In fact, synonyms in search could even help you, by serving up your site as a result for a search on a keyword that’s synonymous with the keyword you’ve targeted.
So as long as your site is relevant to the words being searched, then your site will come up, rather than a site that is relevant to a synonym of the search term.
In the blog post mentioned earlier, Matt Cutts had this advice for website owners when it comes to synonyms:
“As far as concrete advice for webmasters, the same advice still holds that we’ve always said: think about the different words that searchers might use when looking for your content. Don’t just use technical terms, think about real-world terms and slang that users will type. For example, if you’re talking about a “usb drive,” some people might call it a flash drive or a thumb drive. Bear in mind the terms that people will type and think about synonyms that can fit naturally into your content. Don’t stuff an article with keywords or make it awkward, but if you can incorporate different ways of talking about a subject in a natural way, that can help users.”
If you don’t want Google to return sites with synonyms for your search term, for example, if you’re searching for something really specific, you can add a + symbol before the word, to disable synonyms on that particular word. (This only works for the word in front of which the + sign appears, so if you’re using a search term with multiple words, you might want to add it to all of them.)