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November 25, 2013

Are Synonyms the New SEO?

Photo Credit: MrPhilDog via flickr

Until recently, keyword research had been about what differentiates the meaning of words. Hence the SEO obsession with targeting long-tail keywords.

In the wake of Google’s algorithm updates – Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird – a new and more subtle approach may be needed to accommodate more clearly what unites the meaning of words… and thereby extend the Depth of Reach of SEO copy.

For more effective SEO copywriting, we should be looking at using keywords or phrases that are broadly synonymous – as semantic ‘alternatives’ rather than ‘options’. This observation was prompted by a recent article on Wordtracker’s blog – but also by my own vast experience as a website and SEO copywriter.

The difference between ‘alternative’ and ‘optional’ may not be immediately apparent, but consider this nugget from a 2011 Google patent (that was also quoted in the Wordtracker article):

“A search query for a search engine may be improved by incorporating alternate terms … that are semantically similar to the terms of the search query.”

Now this can obviously be open to interpretation – especially what looks like the mis-use of the word ‘alternate’ – but here’s how I see it from a copywriting perspective…

The best copywriting response to a ‘search query’ (as Google describes it) is obviously a keyword-based solution. If Google then says that a specific search approach can be ‘improved’ by including ‘alternate terms’, it obviously places a totally different onus on the copywriting response!

Setting language free…

Long before Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird, I had often felt that optimizing web pages for a narrow keyword range was somehow missing the point in that it restricts the richness of language that can be used to create the copy.

To explain this thinking: the richness of the English language means there are frequently many ways of saying something. In some cases, these may reflect ways of introducing nuances of meaning. In others, it may be more a question of syntax, where a particular phrase reflects formality or informality; colloquial style vs. ‘streetwise’ expression; or a so-called ‘educated’ style vs. simplicity.

In all cases, these alternatives are (on the face of it) trying to say the same thing. Each approach, however, may be trying to incorporate individuality, personality or stylisation, a particular tone of voice, social approachability – or exclusivity.

Whatever else changes in SEO – and that’s been plenty of late! – the one constant will always be the importance of keywords. Looking at the different ways keywords can be approached to explore nuances of meaning has to be another step along the way to ‘search nirvana’.

The insight that this ‘alternative keyword’ approach brings is that suddenly we’re looking down the opposite end of the telescope. Instead of adopting the default position of using keywords to reach beyond the intended meaning and context of a keyword or phrase – and thereby diluting the ultimate meaning and validity of search results! – we can now introduce a greater intensity of meaning into the search process by focusing on synonyms.

Practical realities…

In practical terms, this would mean introducing tightly connected synonyms into all aspects of the copy – tags, headlines and body. It means treating every page of copy holistically (from both a SEO and usability point of view).

Pages of content should follow a distinct theme where synonymous keywords and phrases are included in a disciplined way that enhances, rather than interferes with, the overall meaning of the page. For a SEO copywriter, this is both a constraint – and an opportunity.

Following Google’s direction (as quoted earlier), finding ‘alternate terms’ as synonyms will require some discipline in both the keyword research and subsequent copywriting. On the other hand, synonyms have the potential to provide opportunities to develop in-depth semantic themes that increase the power and persuasiveness of the copy enormously.

If we consider the somewhat old-fashioned usage of the thesaurus in the search for synonyms, it’s immediately apparent that intensity and accuracy of meaning – as well as maximizing impact and effectiveness – are what we have in view.

Similarly, using keyword research in the present-day online context to incorporate synonyms that reflect the overall theme of the content you’re writing is a serious – and exciting! – copywriting challenge that will chime with Google’s expectations and deliver ‘improved’ search results.

For an introduction to Buzzwords’ thinking on SEO and website copywriting, visit:


Mike Beeson is a highly experienced UK journalist, financial copywriter and PR consultant. Mike's company, Buzzwords Limited, was established over 20 years ago and is located in Knutsford, Cheshire (south Manchester).

19 Responses to “Are Synonyms the New SEO?

    Very well said Mike, I agree with all your points here. I have one more question regarding keyword research it would be good for me to know.

    Should we consider google custom search while keywords selection?

    avatar Ferry says:

    The overall theme of the blog content is to be clear and also much sought after by the people who will need the information presented in our blog.

    If this works so well we are doing and also use the correct SEO techniques then our blog will be a good perceived by search engines

    avatar max says:

    I dont think this strategy with a broad range is good to get reasonable results. The effect is that you get the whole stuff totally watered down and finally asking yourself he, what is this search result at Google, because they do this with the effect that their results become more and more irrelevant. But for them this stuff is a dogma just like god for the Vatican, they will never be able to understand, or willing that this strategy is wrong. Just think that a user is human not a computer who look through synonyms first, that is only secondary. Google dont understand humans they are trying to make humans think the Google way, everyone know that they will fail on this, but they dont know.

    avatar Rybird says:

    You still want to write your content for your viewer foremost. With a little experience, I believe that it’s get viewers first, and as a result of traffic, Google and other search engines will give the website better results. Yes it is important to know how Google reads and interprets the content, but more important that your subscribers, viewers, or fans, “notice synonym use”, are happy with it.

    avatar Sagar Rai says:

    I’m still marveling on how Google chooses which synonymous agrees to bold in their SERPs – the H.H.
    Gregg / Best purchase connection still appears to be quite a stretch.

    You seem to suggest that CTR and search capacity play the biggest role…any concept on how to quantify the relationship?

    avatar MICK ANDREWS says:

    Excellent article never really considered it, tho now gives me food for thought, for further research Thanks.

    Is meta-tag “abstract” where it is possible to include about 1000 words. Unless it is not enough of it for these purposes?

    Laws are for criminals, Mike. Both are always after each other. But for gentlemen, there is no rule. Lawmakers rather look up to them for legislation.
    This is the same with SEO. Spammers are hit hard by the ever updating search engine algorithms, and try to find ways out. If they succeed, algorithms update again.
    I look at this new “semantic” update of Google as a liberty for genuine copywriters. They’re now freer to use alternate expressions and still can manage to appear visibly on SERPs. I’m amazed that this has always been characteristic of great writers and how SEO is on its way to pay a tribute to them.

    avatar Rajesh Rao says:

    Right said Raheel. I hope that Google sticks to its newest guns for a long time. This will give content writers their true worth.

    avatar Dan Sullivan says:

    Local Businesses just do not seem to have this type of synonym content, for instance, insurance, or plumbing, it could get silly!

    avatar Hamizan says:

    Thank you for sharing this knowledge

    Good advice, but now everyone’s focused on the words “synonym” and “research”. I’ve always found I get the best results when I write as if I were speaking face-to-face to a single member of my target audience. If you know your audience and your topic – as you should – the “synonyms” will flow naturally without the research.

    avatar mark seltman says:

    This is obvious, but no matter how many synonyms, alternate words, metaphors, analogies, or whatever you use, the original content still needs to be potent.

    avatar Gary Dell says:

    I think this is a positive sign. Google needs to start concentrating on the user experience. People want to find the site they are looking for. They don’t want to find who is currently spending the most ad money with them.

    avatar Paras says:

    I have also seen the same as keywords also been used in case by replacing synonyms tooo.

    avatar Ritesh Reet says:

    Nice points mentioned here. Its necessary now a days to choose the keywords according to the LSI Technique which is recommendable by google.

    Targeting only same keyword on a specific URL again and again can drop the rankings.

    avatar Laura says:

    The fact that Google picks up synonyms is such a good thing – phrases like Cheap and Budget are now acknowledged as the same thing, so you get a lot more exposure than before. It fits really nicely with the Hummingbird update too.

    avatar Jane says:

    Very well said:)

    Good content is the key!!!

    avatar Synonymosum says:

    Synonyms are the same keyword on a specific URL and there content.
    I think this is a positive sign. Google needs to start concentrating on the user experience….

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