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Single or Plural: Why Google Ranks Keywords Differently

July 6, 2020 - Zak Averre

A recent meeting between Google’s John Mueller and Search Engine Journal’s Roger Montti saw them discuss a small but significant question. Why does Google rank singular and plural keywords differently? For example, if you rank for the keyword, ‘spatula’ you’ll find your score differs to a page ranking for the word ‘spatulas’.

The reason behind this difference is user intent. Roger and John’s fascinating discussion expands on this but to help you out we’ve put together some of our thoughts about this discovery. 

This SEO score difference is one that works in general, so don’t apply it to all your sites and expect to get the same result. It’s important to first understand your client’s needs and the user’s intent and work from there. 

How does Google rank different sites for the same queries?

While singular and plural words are synonymous they are often used to ask very different questions. For example; when looking for product comparisons you may use plural e.g. Best headphones for working out? Whereas you’ll use the singular for a specific product’s information, repairs and informative pieces. This is the crux of Google’s thinking and shows how important it is to write for the user’s intent. 

Mueller explains how the Google algorithm works;

“…we would see those queries as being different… And when we see them as being slightly different, then we might think that one or the other of these pages makes more sense to show.

So usually with singular and plural, we do recognize that they’re synonyms, more or less.

But we also recognize that maybe there’s something kind of unique to one of them or to the other one.

Such as, if you’re looking for a plural maybe you’re looking more for like a list or a comparison page or maybe a category page of different kinds of these items.

So that’s something where our systems try to take that into account and it can result in slightly different results being shown for one or the other.”

This thinking makes sense and highlights the importance of writing for your user. By focusing on their intent and tailoring keywords, even synonyms, to user needs, you can get a boost in rankings and move up the SERPs. 

But why not rank for both? This is where things get a little more complicated? Adding semantic variations is important to improving SEO scores but it should be done selectively. Mueller goes on to expand on this. 

“That’s something where you… can’t really force that, other than to tweak things subtly, that you kind of make sure that the right words, the right phrasing is on these pages, that you link them internally properly.”

But that’s sometimes kind of tricky.

“It’s also worth keeping in mind that just because when you take a step back that these words or these queries sound very similar and they seem very much the same, it might well be that users do treat them as different queries and do expect different kinds of results.

So… before just jumping in and saying oh I need to have the same page rank for both of these, maybe check with some other people to see, does it make sense to change this?

Or is this something where it’s actually not that bad?  …Another thing you can do is the page that’s currently ranking, put some kind of a call to action on it and say hey, if you’re looking for this, also check out this other page.”

At the end of the day writing for your user is the key to improving SEO. Write in a style that they expect and use keywords that fit into their narrative and you’ll find your Google rank rise. Contact us now to find out more about how we can improve your SEO, content, social media, and PPC.

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