Mutated Search Queries

Google has recently began refining search queries far more aggressively. In the past they would refine search queries if they thought there was a misspelling, but new refinements have taken to changing keywords that are spelled correctly to align them with more common (and thus profitable) keywords.

As one example, the search result [weight loss estimator] is now highly influenced by [weight loss calculator]. The below chart compares the old weight loss estimator SERP, the current weight loss estimator SERP & the current weight loss calculator SERP. Click on the image for a larger view.

Google keyword mutation.

There are 2 serious issues with this change

  • disclosure: in the past refinement disclosures appeared at the top of the search results, but now it often ends up at the bottom
  • awful errors: a couple months after I was born my wife was born in Manila. When I was doing some searches about visiting & things like that, sometimes Google would take the word "Manila" out of the search query. (My guess is because the word "Manila" is also a type of envelope?)

Here is an example of an "awful error" in action. Let's say while traveling you find a great gift & want to send it to extended family. Search for [shipping from las vegas to manila] and you get the following

The search results contain irrelevant garbage like an Urban Spoon page for Las Vegas delivery restaurants.

How USELESS is that?

And now, with disclosure of changes at the bottom of the search results, there isn't even a strong & clean signal to let end users tell Google "hey you are screwing this up badly."

In some ways I am inspired by Google's willingness to test and tweak, but in others I wonder if their new model for search is to care less about testing and hope that SEOs will highlight where Google is punting it bad. In that case, they just roped me into offering free advice. ;)

Published: October 15, 2011 by Aaron Wall in google


October 16, 2011 - 11:58am

It will be interesting to see how far Google takes this... "You typed 'cute dog sweaters'. Did you mean 'mesothelioma lawyer'?"


Beyond spelling correction, I don't like this at all and just like Google instant it will drive more traffic to more profitable keyword groups while lowering search diversity. I can see Google effectively stripping out many long-tail results with this and instant.

October 17, 2011 - 11:36am

Sticking the 'tip' at the end is very sneaky indeed because most people won't scroll that far.
Strangely enough, when I clicked on your link to search results for Manila shipping costs, despite Google telling me that the results do not include the word "manila", I still got among the results.

October 17, 2011 - 11:58am is as though they consider the word important enough to consider it for a few of the search results, but then chose to ignore it for a large portion of them (like the "las vegas delivery restaurants" example)

October 17, 2011 - 1:19pm

This example definitely makes sense based on volume.

[weight loss estimator] – 91 local exact searches/month
[weight loss calculator] – 40,500 local exact searches a month

If you were doing seo in the space you *might* feel like you need to go after both… which could mean you’d have a long title tag like “Weight Loss Calculator – Free Weight Loss Estimator from…” OR you might go so far as to make two pages that offer the same basic thing, just with one focused on ‘estimator’ and one on ‘calculator’.

So. The move looks like it can be aimed at a few things…

(a) Remove the incentive for webmasters to create near-duplicate pages just to target different phrases that mean the same thing.

(b) Push out smaller, “lower quality” (read: non brand) sites that aggressively optimize for the lower competition phrasing - allowing the large, branded sites to come in based on their optimizations for the alternate, higher volume way of saying the same thing.

(c) Test their assumptions on phrase matching. The machine assumes ‘weight loss estimator’ and ‘weight loss calculator’ are the same thing. Change the search results accordingly and watch CTR/bounce rates/re-searches. That data then lets them know if the assumption that those two phrases are the same is correct or not.

October 17, 2011 - 11:15pm

was searching for product reviews on the weekend and noticed in very small print at the bottom that my search didn't contain the word "review" even though I explicitly told Google that I was looking for reviews. um ok. I just wasted scrolling through the page to find out at the bottom that you didn't provide results for a search that I made. This is so bizarre.

October 18, 2011 - 5:47am

...especially as reviews are one of the few "legitimate" angles where an affiliate can add value (say, along with things like discounts, comparisons and tutorials).

Do you have example search results you can share on that front?

October 18, 2011 - 5:47pm

Unfortunately I didn't screen cap it and can't trigger it anymore. So this may have been part of a test that isn't being used anymore. None the less I though it was very strange to remove the term "review" out of my search as it is a popular term for users to search on when looking for reviews (business name + reviews :) If it does pop up again I'll grab it.

But here is some info about the search:
- it was for a local business that manufactures goods.
- the search term came up in Google suggest as a suggested search.
- there are review pages for the business out there (yelp, bbb, and other review sites) although not a ton.
- the business is local but has been around for many years.

I initially thought that because the business is small there may not be the content out there so Google was pushing me in a direction because they simply couldn't fulfill the request. That simply isn't the case as there is content out there that matches the search more closely that just dropping the term altogether. I was hoping to see some yelp style reviews or possibly a collection of articles from local sources: blogger, newspapers etc as I have seen those before for similar searches. But not the case and just a bunch pages with the business name in it.

It's hard to not get all wrapped up in what type of search results we would like to see as we work in this field everyday. But when I use Google for personal searches (as this search was for) and see this kind of thing going on, it has made me turn to another search engine more frequently to see if I can find what I'm looking for.

October 18, 2011 - 9:07am

A similar, and not even too recent, phenomenon in Google SERPs is that when you enter a query that contains one very limiting word, the algorithm often (not ALWAYS) ignores it, in order to be able to give you results.

Let's say you search for "french translation [rare_french_word]" or "online bookshop [exotic_book_title]" or "childcare [some_small_village]".

You might simply get results for "french translation", "online bookshop" and "childcare", respectively.

I do see this "refinement" in action when I look at my web statistics and see queries sending me traffic even if my sites are not relevant for the FULL query, just for a subset of it.

Such results will not help the searcher, in fact, simply waste his time.

Does he care about professional translation services when all he wants is the meaning of a word? Does he need a list of generic bookshops that may not even have the title in stock? However, those SERPs give Google another shot at making money if the user eventually clicks an ad.

Just stating that there is no good result for the query would be perhaps a bit more honest and respectful of the user.

Then again, I have no doubt that in the "Do-no-evil" warehouse of make-believe self-serving ideologies Google has an explanation about how this serves the user much, much better than an ugly (i.e. unmonetized) "sorry, no results" page...

October 18, 2011 - 4:28pm that anyone who has studied information retrieval for as little as a week knows that the rarer words typically have a far higher discrimination factor.

They are the opposite of stop words like the, and, or, a, etc.

That they would even consider widely rolling out an algorithm that drops rare words from the search queries does not bode well for any appreciation of information retrieval. And that they move the disclaimers of the modifications to the bottom of the search results only makes such changes more suspicious.

How many ways have they attacked the tail of search?

  • Google Suggest (consolidate the search ecosystem), then Google Instant (to force people down well worn paths)
  • automated spell correction (which may "correct" your spelling to something you do not want)
  • bigger ad units
  • more white space
  • insertion of YouTube, Google Places, Google Books, Google product search in the search results
  • scraping third party content & using it to pad out Google properties
  • inserting other less common verticals in the search results
  • using Google squared to insert references in some SERPs
  • manually hitting some sites by labeling them as spam
  • rolling out the Panda algorithm to make the longtail *very* risky unless you have a strong brand and/or a low cost of production
  • and now they are just flat out dropping keywords from search queries

It seems to me that they don't much like the long tail because it doesn't monetize well enough.

The interesting thing here is that relevancy in the tail was Google's great strength over Bing (along with brand). But now Google is cashing in both of those advantages by making their brand broader (shades of Yahoo!?) and by making their longtail results less relevant by force ranking their own crap and/or altering the search queries.

As a shareholder, on a short term opportunistic business strategy it is easy to like what Google is doing. However, anyone who studies information retrieval can't be particularly impressed.

November 29, 2011 - 2:47pm

I tried to search [shipping from las vegas to manila] and I didn't see the sentence: "include results with the word MANILA". Don't know if it can be because I live in Spain.

December 1, 2011 - 4:47am

...or it might only be activated in certain areas.

I just searched 7 & didn't see the issue my guess is that they read this post & fixed the bug.

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