Sometimes search engines only get it half correct. You type keywords into the browser on the PC or the mobile device and hit return. Within seconds you get results. When one word used in a different context has several meanings, the search engine has to work harder.
Google Software Engineer Steven Baker explains in a blog post changes to the way the Mountain View, Calif., search engine handles search results related to synonyms. (Matt Cutts provides guidance, too.)
Enabling computers to understand language remains one of the hardest problems in artificial intelligence, admits Baker. A key part of Google's infrastructure, from the search engine to the platforms that serve up ads, relies on understanding synonyms. Google's technology analyzes petabytes of Web documents and historical search data to understand what words mean within the context of a search query or Web site. Baker presents the term "GM" as an example. You will often find the most popular meaning of the acronym "GM" as "General Motors."
As SEO by the Sea's Bill Slawski points out, Baker's post describes how Google creates different statistical language models to find alternatives for words used in searches. Slawski directs us to a patent application published in 2008 that explores how Google could translate a word or phrase from one language into another, and then translate it back into the original language. The translation back into the original language may include more than one result.
Engineers continually struggle to correct semantic relations between words. It's not easy. I agree with Reliable-SEO Founder David Harry, who tells me "computer semantic analysis is no better than that of a six-year- old."
Despite advancements in distinguishing search terms, Google also has a problem when serving up some ads through AdWords and AdSense. Sometimes the paid search and display ad-serving technology can't distinguish between the meaning of a word.
Take lottery pool and swimming pool, for example. Daniel Bader, who runs the advertising-supported Web site myfreelotterypool.com, points me to an advertisement on his Web site promoting swimming pools and spas. "Occasionally, Google drops in ads for home swimming pools," he says. "It costs me money and takes up ad space on the Web site. No one is going to click on that type of ad on my site."
Well, only if they win the lottery, he says half jokingly.
For those with Web search semantic issues, Google offers a way to post questions and get help.