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Google Introduces Synonym Searching, News Alerting Features
Posted On August 11, 2003
Professional researchers—the ones who actually understand and use the advanced search techniques provided by Web search engines—will be delighted to learn Google has introduced a new feature that enables searching by synonyms as well as by keyword. The mechanism for doing this couldn't be easier. All you need to do is preface your word with a tilde (~). The example Google gives is a search for browser help as well as browser guides and tutorials. The search strategy is: browser ~help. Why the tilde? It's shorthand for approximate, which is appropriate since that's what you get—an approximation of similar search terms.

In addition to free-text synonym searching, the new advanced search feature works in fielded searches. Search for browser intitle:~help, browser inurl:~help, allintitle:browser ~help, or allinurl browser ~help, and you will retrieve synonyms for help occurring in the title and URL fields, respectively. For example, enter intitle:~cancer and Web sites with pain, one of the synonyms for cancer along with disease and oncology, in the title will show up on the results list.

In typical Google fashion, the synonym search feature is computer created. Although human beings created the algorithm, a Google employee did not sit down with a thesaurus and enter all the words and synonyms into a database that Google searches when it sees that tilde. According to Marissa Mayer, director, Consumer Web Products, the intent is to broaden a search. "We think this is a powerful and useful way to broaden results. It's the opposite of disambiguation, which narrows a search. Google's synonym search will provide searchers with additional possibilities for search terms and help them if they don't know the jargon associated with a topic."

Google won't reveal how the algorithm works. However, extensive searching gives some clues. There's certainly evidence of PageRank, not exactly surprising, in the skewing of results toward popularity. Enter ~apple and the synonyms are almost entirely computer related. There's no synonym for the fruit mention of the word, nor for singer Fiona Apple. A search for ~shell, first retrieves the home page for Shell Oil Company, but the next nine highlight Unix as the synonym. The second page of results mixes the oil company and computer Web sites. No synonyms for seashells down by the seashore show up, probably because there aren't a lot of Web sites that link to those types of sites. Google optimizes search results that are frequently linked to, which weights results toward technology, business, and entertainment. Mayer pointed out that synonym searching works only on the Web search tab, not in Images or News, and only in English.

Synonym searching has no effect on AdWords and sponsored links. If you search for ~magazine, it will trigger ad displays for companies that have purchased magazine as an AdWord, but none for its synonym journal. What has happened, to the amazement of Google staff, is the mining of synonyms by Webmasters who want to use them as new registered keywords for their products.

Separately, Google announced its news alerting service ( As with the synonym feature, this should be welcomed by serious researchers. Other news tracking services, such as that from The New York Times, have begun charging for the service; a free Google news alerting service is a boon.

Options for update frequency are either once a day or as news happens. If a story is being widely reported, choosing the second option is very likely to result in a flooded inbox. There is a limit of 50 alerts per e-mail address. The normal search conventions, as operative in Google News, can be used. In addition to Boolean searches, a News Alert can be limited by source, location (country or U.S. state), occurrences (anywhere, in the headline, in the body of the story, or in the URL), and date. The one drawback to News Alert is the inability to edit a search. Instead, it must be deleted and a new one entered.

Both synonym searching and News Alerts were developed by Google in its Google Labs ( Both are in beta. According to Mayer, it's Google's normal practice to introduce new features and services and then watch how people use them. From this, Google decides on further developments and minor tweaking. For example, if synonym searching catches on, it may join the Advanced Search page as a search option. At the moment, it's not there. Other languages might also be added, much as French and German news was added to the formerly all-English sources of Google News. For now, it's a good bet that Google Labs is working on other features designed to delight a searcher's heart.

Marydee Ojala is the editor-in-chief of Online Searcher magazine, chairs WebSearch University, and is Program Development Director for Enterprise Search & Discovery.

Email Marydee Ojala
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