Google's handling of synonyms when it comes to searcher behavior and the results it displays has been a topic we've visited several times in recent memory. We noticed in one of Google's lists of "search quality highlights" that a number of changes Google has made have been related to synonyms. Clearly, Google has been working on getting better in this department.
Interestingly, the topic came up in the latest Google Webmaster Help video. Matt Cutts responds to the question:
If two terms are used essentially interchangeably, does Google realize that the terms are interchangeable? Should you be trying to use both terms, or just focus on one term to get the best search engine traffic? An example is EMR and EHR.
"My advice would be, all of the things being equal, as long as you can do it without sounding artificial or stilted or spammy, is to go ahead and use both words," Cutts says. "We have an entire team at Google called the synonyms team, and their job is to sort of realize that car and automobile are the same thing, but I wouldn't claim that they're perfect all the time, and so rather than relying on the search engine to really be able to intuit that you're not only about electronic health records, but also about electronic medical records, my advice would be to make sure that you mention, in a natural way, that you are good at both of those."
He continues, "A good way to do that is to have some paragraphs of text or a background about what you do, and just make sure that when you're talking about what it is - maybe once it's a USB drive, and the next time it's a USB stick, and at the bottom of the page it's a flash drive or whatever, but just read that tex aloud, and maybe even ask a friend to read it and say, 'Does it sound stilted? Does it sound artificial?' And if you're trying to incorporate really a lot of keywords, then you'll notice that your text does become stilted, artificial, or maybe even spammy."
"But, in general, if you are able to use synonyms or the words that users wold actually type in a natural way, then you reduce or remove that uncertainty, and Google doesn't have to somehow guess or estimate that that's what your page is really about, so that can be kind of helpful, and I would recommend that you try to use the words in a natural way as long as it doesn't go too far, and people start to notice that it sounds weird," he concludes.
It sounds like, depending on what you're trying to rank for, there may be a fine line for what Google will actually like in terms of using various synonyms on a page. Read our discussion on this topic with former Googler Vanessa Fox.