Google Now Searching For Synonyms
Blink, and you might have missed it. Google’s now doing synonym
searching. It’s something they quietly noted in a
past Google blog post and one that comes up again today in a
post that covers how Google uses experiments to improve the search
Back to synonym searching in a moment. The main focus of today’s post is
how small changes can have a big impact on how users interact with search
results. Some before and after screenshots of various search results are
shown. Most compelling to me was how by making the + symbol thicker in a "Plus
Box" that allows for stock quotes to be shown for a listing, usage went
up. But the post also highlights how that doesn’t mean it’s an improvement. More
usage might mean people are missing other important information in favor of
a new gadget. Such is the thoughtful insight that goes into measuring even
little changes like this.
Midway in the post, we’re told this:
The algorithm that is responsible for the titles
and snippets of result pages now highlights stems and some synonyms of the
original query term. For the query [hp
printer drivers] we will also return results that include and
highlight the word "driver".
This sort of "stemming," as it’s called, is generally a good idea, because
it helps you better identify results that match your query, but not
always. Experiments of this sort help us verify (or, occasionally,
overturn) our assumptions regarding changes in these algorithms.
Stemming on Google isn’t new. The company has been doing it since back
in 2003. It was also highlighting stemmed words back then. If you
searched for "running," and it found a page with the word "run," the word
"run" would be bolded in the search listing description.
So highlighting stemmed words isn’t new. What is new is that Google now
goes beyond simple stemming and does synonym matching.
For example, with stemming, a search for running might match:
But it wouldn’t match:
This is because the word run doesn’t make up part of those words
(stemming means that the word you searched for makes up the "stem" of other
With synonym searching — or concept searching or thesaurus searching,
which are other terms used — you do a search to find matches for the
original word, stem variations of the word, and words that are conceptually
related to it.
Google doing searches for synonyms is a big change and one I wish wasn’t
buried in the middle of this other post. It deserved highlighting on its
own, or in another posts where it was mentioned, such as here
It is critical that we understand what our users are looking for
(beyond just the few words in their query). We have made several notable
advances in this area including a best-in-class spelling suggestion
system, an advanced synonyms system, and a very strong concept analysis
I remember reading that briefly in the middle of a trip and flagging it
for follow-up. Google’s doing conceptual search now? When did that happen, I
Anyway, it’s official now. I pinged Google for a bit more info, and they
Yes, the highlighting of synonyms has changed. Also the degree to which
we understand synonyms changes and improves, and this can affect the
impact on highlighting the terms. The main point is that the algorithm
does change. We mostly highlight stems, not synonyms, but the distinction
is lost on most people."
One thing I hope will come soon after this highlighting is a flag to let
people know if their search as been customized to match stems or synonyms.
It can make a difference to searchers, and they may not realize it happening
Notifies Of "Search Customization" & Gives Searchers Control from last
month covers how Google does such flagging in other cases.