Quick. What’s another word for thesaurus? Okay. Don’t actually answer that. But here’s one to ponder: Did you know that Google’s algorithm has a different definition of the word synonym than the one we are likely accustomed to? For instance, according to an English thesaurus, you and me are opposites. However, astonishingly in the parlance of Google, you and me sometimes mean the same exact thing. “How?” you ask. The answer is “context.”
If we remember Google’s main mission – to provide the best search results – then the paradox doesn’t seem so… well… paradoxical. A vital piece of Google’s algorithm is a system to bridge the gap between Google users’ vocabulary and the vocabulary of web documents containing the results they are searching for. This means that the query that a user inputs into a Google search field can get reinterpreted, added onto, and have a whole host of operator logic applied to it in order to deliver what Google guesses to be the search results most aligned with the intent of the user.
Allow me to illustrate with an example. Let’s suppose you have a hankering for surströmming – you know, everyone’s favorite fermented herring treat from Sweden. Your deep craving for the nearly rotted, lightly-salted fish has likely guided you to google: surströmming near me. And you will get a number of results from this search… depending on where you live in the world of course. And you may note that while the top results will likely contain the word surströmming somewhere in each results’ content, the results’ content is less likely to contain the exact phrase near me. However, you may also see in the search results that there are web pages containing the phrase surströmming near you. Why? Because the websites’ content is more likely written such that they are talking to you – the customer – and are letting you know that the restaurant is located near you.
In fact, when you search for surströmming near me, Google is actually searching for a string of other terms based on its version of synonyms all strung together with the OR operator. The actual string might look like:
surströmming OR fermented herring
near OR close to OR nearby OR around
me OR you
I bolded the search text that you actually queried because Google may give more weight to results containing that specific phrasing.
And see? According to Google you and me are the same.
So what’s the takeaway here? I would say that it is to remember that Google is pretty smart, so when you’re writing your website’s content, think about how intuitive Google is before you start loading your pages up with unnecessary and cumbersome synonyms. As a general rule, you should use synonyms in your website’s content when it is natural to do so, but there is no need to find all of the potential synonyms and pack your site with them. Google will understand you. And me. All of us.