Search EnginesHow many times have you searched for something, only to find that you are presented with results that don’t quite match what you wanted? It is a daily occurrence for many people. Search engines like Google, Yahoo! and Bing do a fantastic job, but ultimately they are only as good as the words typed in by their users. Type in something that is somewhat ambiguous and you can be presented with all sorts of sites you didn’t want…!

The problem is that many words have multiple meaning. Search engines have to try to work out the exact meaning of what users type in. But unlike human conversation, typing frequently does not present any real context. For example, when you use a word that has several different meanings someone listening to you instantly knows which meaning you are inferring because of the tone of your voice, your body language and the overall context of the conversation. Search engines don’t have those benefits to rely on. All they have is typing.

The mathematical algorithms which search engines use do have some ability to work out roughly what people are searching for, depending on the other words that are also typed in. This is an attempt to establish the context of the word. As an example, consider the word “script”. It has several possible meanings – a drama script, a computer programmers script, an academic examination paper, and a medical script or prescription. If you are two doctors chatting away about a script you know what you mean is a prescription, not the text of the latest movie. Equally, if you are in a meeting about computers, you infer that anyone talking about a script is focusing on programming, not discussing academic exams.

However, if you are a search engine and someone types in “script” what do you present as the result…? This is a problem which all the search engines have to tackle and they are not helped by their users – us…!

Ambiguous words help people not search engines

Linguists have discovered that ambiguous words with multiple meanings actually increase the accuracy of our communication. Past theories have suggested that linguistic ambiguities have arisen because language was never supposed to be something we used to communicate with each other, but as an internal thinking system. We would know what we meant; it never mattered that no-one else would…! However, the new findings from linguists show that ambiguous words help us communicate better. It turns out that it is more efficient to use a short word with several meanings and let the listener work out the meaning as a result of context, body language and vocal tone, for instance. Otherwise we would have to use very long words, conversations would take longer as would thinking, making the production of speech a cumbersome and slow process. Ambiguity actually speeds up communication.

Unless you are a search engine….!

So, how can you help yourself – and your website visitors – to get the results wanted in a search engine? The answer is to focus on long words, which the linguists demonstrate are much less ambiguous. So, if you are a medic, don’t go for your first instinct of searching for information on a “script”, write the word you almost never use “prescription”. If you are a computer programmer use the old-fashioned  “batch language file” instead of “script”, for instance. In other words, go for complex when searching, rather than simple; go against your normal communication instincts.

For website owners it means you are more likely to get that coveted “number one” position on a search engine if you focus on the less popular, longer and less ambiguous words.

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