Why Google Ranks Singular and Plural Keywords Differently
The fact that the Google search engine can rank keywords in the singular and plural in different ways has been known for several years. John Mueller, a leading Google analyst, reminded about this in 2016 on his Twitter. By the way, we recommend subscribing to his account to be the first to get to know all the news on changes in the search engine algorithms.
In 2016, Mueller simply answered the user’s question whether word forms of different quantities are considered different keywords (the response was abstract, “Yes, they can be”). In 2020, he explained in detail why this is happening.
What is the Problem and How Does It Affect SEO Results
When choosing keywords, some SEO specialists are guided by the semantics of keyword + its synonyms. Synonyms include both phrases that are similar in meaning and their other word forms, including the conversion of the singular to the plural, and vice versa.
The consideration is based on the fact that the search engine will perceive such keywords in the same way and issue the same SERP for different requests. Google understands the context, and the query “where to get a car in Ohio” is read as “car, buy, Ohio.” But this deep understanding of word forms helps to perceive the slightest changes in requests and interpret them in different ways.
Thus, just like John Mueller wrote on his Twitter, the plural and singular can lead to different pages of the site because such keywords can be different.
The emphasis is that it may happen but not necessarily. And that is the problem. How to understand in which cases it is necessary to pay attention to this, and in which not?
Let’s experiment, first google for “car New York” and then for “cars New York.”
The first thing that catches your eye is that there are three times as many search results for the request where the word is singular. At the same time, the TOP-3 search results coincide, the differences are only in the order, and the pages themselves are identical.
Let’s check both requests by Semrush.
The statistics are the same by all the points, meaning that Semrush treats these keywords as the same. So, is this another SEO myth? Unlikely. Let’s change the request a little.
In this case, Google behaves differently. The first link coincides, but the next two do not. Moreover, you can see that for a “white car” request, the system searches for articles where the advantages and disadvantages of this color for a car are investigated, and for “white cars” requests – selections of these cars.
Let’s check by Semrush.
Semrush also perceives these keywords as being different.
Thus, if you assume that these queries are identical for the search engine, you will lose some of the customers who choose the singular instead of the plural (or vice versa).
How Google’s Ranking Algorithm Works: Explained by John Mueller
In October 2019, Google officially announced on Twitter that, for English-language queries in the US, it began to use the new natural language processing system, i.e., BERT. Now, BERT continues to be implemented for other countries and other languages, read more information in the article Google BERT Update. The tweet indicated that this system is better at recognizing user queries and therefore improving search results.
BERT refers to Natural Language Processing systems, which is the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Thus, its algorithm does not work according to the unambiguous rules “see this, and do the same.” And the developers do not instruct it on how it should work, but they say what it should produce as a result.
What does this mean? Whereas in 2016, singular and plural keywords for Google could be perceived differently, in 2020, it became even more likely and less amenable to analysis.
In June 2020, at an online Google Webmaster meeting, one of the users drew John Mueller’s attention to this and asked him to explain why the search engine gives him different results for “garden shed Sydney” and “garden sheds Sydney.” For the second query, a product page is displayed, and for the first one, one of the posts in the company’s blog is shown.
Before answering, Mueller pointed out that his answer refers to such situations in general and the operation of the Google algorithm, and not to a specific user problem.
Google’s algorithm can recognize that words in the plural and singular are synonymous, and it is also able to recognize that there is a difference and that when choosing a particular number, a user may mean two different queries. Therefore, it thinks whether it makes sense to show this or that page for this particular word form
It bases its assumptions on user behavior:
- A certain top SERP is shown to thousands and millions of people.
- If people click, everything is fine, and the search results are correct.
- If they do not click but scroll further and click on another type of page, the search results change. Those sites that are considered “correct” by users are ranked at the top of the SERP.
And this is an endless process because the intention of users can change, and it can also depend on the country, language, product, etc.
In general, Mueller explains the perception of the algorithm as follows:
- If users are looking for a plural, they are interested in comparing different products, their lists, etc. Thus, Google will search for pages with different product categories.
- If users are looking for a single number, they are interested in a specific product. That is, Google will show them pages with one product, its description, etc.
This explanation coincides with the results we obtained in the experiment.
The full answer by John Mueller can be viewed in this video:
Does Google Always Rank Singular and Plural Keywords Differently?
In practice, we found out that not always. Moreover, there is no specific answer when the rule works and when it does not. The algorithm can work in one case in such a way that it will rank the singular and plural in different ways, and the other case – in the same way.
It can be assumed that the more specific the request (for example, not “car New York,” but “car Chevrolet 2020 New York”), the more likely it is that for a request in singular, Google will display a page with that particular car or review.
Roughly speaking, the query “car New York” does not indicate which “car New York” is requested, so Google can also show pages with categories of different “cars New York.”
It also works in the opposite direction: if the query is less specific and the user is looking for just “car” and not “car New York,” then for the singular, the search engine will most likely find a definition of what a car is (the intention to obtain information), and for the plural request, car options will be displayed (intent to buy).
Thus, the Google algorithm seeks to better understand the user, but it does not always succeed and does not always meet the expectations of the webmaster.
Mueller also speaks of these difficulties. For example, the required page can be not displayed upon request, as well as another may be displayed instead.
What Conclusions Can Be Drawn
Some experts suggest that the more synonyms in a set of keywords there are, the better it is. But this used to work before Google learned to understand the context, and those days are long gone.
If Google has learned to think like a person (or at least close to that), then SEO should become more human. On the one hand, it is easier because we are all human, but on the other hand, it is not as the human brain is a too complex mechanism. But some rules and techniques can still be drawn.
For example, if the search engine gives the user another page instead of the desired one, add Call-to-action to it. Such a scheme will work:
- The client is looking for where to buy garden benches.
- They google “garden bench.”
- They find a blog post from your company on how to choose a garden bench.
- BUT! At the beginning of the article, they see the CTA “Catalog of garden benches is here.”
- Done! The client goes to the page you wanted to lead them to.
Do the same if you want the page to rank for both singular and plural. But at first, be sure it makes sense. Perhaps your clients do not use the request that you are trying to impose on them, and those who are looking for one garden bench wanted to know about how to choose it, and not how to buy it here and now.
How to Select Keywords’ Forms Depending on User Intent
The best method is to listen to what Google is pointing at and figure out how to lead a customer to your page based on SERP. From all of the above, we can conclude that although specific tips and tools are essential, the Google algorithm does not work unambiguously. The main thing is not SEO techniques, but the intention of the user. BERT is trained on thousands of other cases and recognizes it well.
So, if Google thinks that typing the singular request, users want to read a blog post on the company site, maybe they do.
Check Google keywords through the search bar and Semrush. In several cases, the search shows that the singular and plural are the same, but in some cases, they are not. And sometimes you will not be able to explain why. For example, red and black cars for Google are the same in any number, but there is a difference for white.
You can also analyze user intent yourself. Do not try to link the page to both Google keywords, but consider what the user might mean by each of them. It is crucial to do this before making any changes to the page; otherwise, there is a risk of losing your page rank altogether.
It is a bad idea to focus on grammatical forms and endings because, in most cases, it does not even matter. For example, everyone knows that the words new and news are different, although they differ in only one letter. BERT can also recognize this.
If you try to include all the word forms and synonyms of a keyword on one page, you will over-spam it with them and “kill” the rating of the site. Instead, choose the optimal one.