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Query Relaxation And Scoping As Part Of Semantic Search

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Query Relaxation And Scoping As Part Of Semantic Search

The right search query is a Goldilocks-style effort: Not too specific that you get no results, and not too broad that you get too many.

Semantic search, meanwhile, is all about understanding what searchers throw into a search box.

In other words, with semantic search, we meet searchers where they are instead of requiring them to meet us where we are.

Enter query relaxation and query scoping.

Search engines get searchers to the right content right away through techniques like synonyms, query word removal, and query scoping.

We avoid missing out on relevant information that wouldn’t otherwise appear, and we leave out information that isn’t relevant.

Query relaxation and scoping are tied very closely with the concept of precision and recall.

Precision measures whether the returned results are relevant, and recall is whether relevant results are returned.

One way to increase recall specifically is through query expansion.

Query Expansion

Query expansion is all about expanding what the query will match with the hope of having better results.

The main reason a search engine might apply query expansion is due to some indication that the “base” search results without query expansion would not be satisfactory for the searcher.

In this series, we have already seen some ways to expand queries.

Typo tolerance, plural ignoring, and stemming and lemmatization are all ways to increase the recall of searches.

We’ve already seen those query expansion methods among the bedrocks of search, but other query expansion methods are also just as fundamental.

An article in Search Engine Journal from 2008 covers how Google performs query expansion!

The article discusses not just stemming and typo tolerance but also translations, word removals, and synonyms.

Synonyms And Alternatives

There’s a reason George Orwell introduced Newspeak in his novel 1984 and why it resonated in a story about life utterly controlled to the point of blandness.

Linguistic richness is driven by the ability to say the same thing, or nearly the same thing, with different words and phrases. “Great” can be “awesome,” and “low-cost” is a near neighbor to “cheap.”

Meanwhile, these different words can help us more precisely refer to items similar in all but the smallest ways.

These differences are sometimes so small that this precision instead breeds confusion and less likely to find what we want.

A customer wanting a rocking chair may not know whether to search for “rockers,” “rocking chairs,” or simply “chairs.”

This is where synonyms and alternatives provide value.

They help us expand recall in search results.

Synonyms and alternatives are similar, but they are not the same.

(You could say that they are not synonyms.)

Synonyms refer to two words or phrases that mean the same thing.

Alternatives instead refer to similar words or phrases but have some degrees of difference.

Synonyms

Often, synonyms make their way into a search engine through synonym lists.

These lists can come from predefined lists, such as general ecommerce terms.

The problem with predefined lists is that synonyms for one company’s search engine won’t necessarily work for another.

Quick: What’s a console? You may immediately think of video games, but someone else might think of a car or music.

For that reason, many synonym lists are created in-house.

At the beginning of a search implementation process, internal subject matter experts think of all of the words that could be synonyms for other words and add them to the search engine configuration.

(This, in reality, is often an idealized view of what happens. Often the person creating the synonym list is not a subject matter expert, but instead, the person implementing the search engine.)

Generally, this initial list will provide a good starting point, but there are sure to be missing synonyms.

The only real way to discover which terms your searchers will use is to let them search.

Using Analytics To Discover Synonyms

You’ll see very quickly in your analytics queries that could use new synonyms.

These queries are returning zero results and are a sign that searchers are looking for something they can’t find.

Now, not all of these queries will give you a new synonym.

Sometimes, searchers are looking for items that you just don’t have.

Nonetheless, you’ll see queries where you think immediately, “oh, we have that one,” and “I didn’t know people asked for it like that.”

There will also be times when a query returns results but not what the searcher wants.

These queries can also give you ideas for synonyms if you track “search refinements.”

Search refinements represent when searchers search and then search again.

This implies that the searchers didn’t find what they wanted the first time and tried again to find something better.

Someone searching for “Dell laptop” and following it up with “Dell notebook” is saying that “laptop” and “notebook” are related, but the search results for “laptop” were insufficient.

While there’s nothing wrong with looking for those trends in your analytics manually (it can be a good activity to slowly ease into the work week), you’ll be a lot more productive if you have a system that proactively sources them for you.

Some systems may even apply synonyms on your behalf, but this isn’t always helpful.

A human can spot refinements that don’t show valid synonyms or may see that the system is suggesting an incorrect type of synonym.

Types Of Synonyms

That’s right: There are different types of synonyms.

This concept may seem strange at first, but it’s probably not far from how most people think of them.

“Two-way” is the first type of synonym. These synonyms are direct replacements for each other.

“Small” and “mini” are two-way synonyms of each other.

The words don’t need to be perfect replacements but can be close enough that people might use one for the other.

For example, “rope” and “string” don’t describe the same thing, but they are close enough to be worthy two-way synonyms.

It can be useful to think of the query created through the use of synonyms.

If we take a query of “small cheese pizza” and expand that out, you can think of the query now as “(small or mini) and cheese and pizza.”

“One-way” is the next type of synonym.

This type is often used for words that refer to an object that belongs to a larger category.

“PlayStation” is a type of video game “console,” but a “console” is not a type of “PlayStation.”

If you add a one-way synonym to the search configuration, you can have PlayStations show up whenever someone searches for “console.”

Why not a two-way synonym between these two terms?

Because two-way synonyms are transitive.

If term one and term two are two-way synonyms, and terms two and three are two-way synonyms, then terms one and three are two-way.

In a more direct example, “PlayStation” and “console” and “Xbox” and “console” as two groups of two-way synonyms would mean that “PlayStation” and “Xbox” are synonyms, and searchers would see Playstations when searching for Xboxes, and vice versa.

“Alternative corrections” is the final type.

These are used when the words aren’t precise replacements for each other, and you want the exact match to appear higher than the alternative.

For example, you might say that “pants” are an alternative to “shorts,” but when someone searches the word “shorts,” then all shorts should appear higher than pants generally.

All synonym types, by their nature, expand recall.

However, the hit on precision should be minimal because these synonyms are “pointers” to similar concepts.

You would expect a better search experience for the end user.

Query Word Removal

Sometimes searchers will use a query that doesn’t return anything because the query was too specific or used a word that didn’t exist in any of the records.

Remove one word, or two words, from the query, and perfectly decent results would come back.

This is a great time to use query word removal.

Stop Words

Perhaps the most common query word removal step is removing “stop words.”

Stop words are very common words that provide meaning for communication but don’t help with retrieval. Words such as “the” or “an” can remove otherwise good matches.

This is more common in queries oriented toward natural language, such as voice search queries.

An example of this would be searching for “an orange shirt” on a product search engine.

If the search engine searches over the title, color, and category, there might be plenty of records that have “shirt” as a category and “orange” as a color, but none that include the word “an.”

Now, really, does the word “an” provide any useful information here?

No, it doesn’t, and the search engine can safely remove it without losing precision.

Unlike synonyms, you generally do not want to create your own stop word lists, and most search engines have them built-in per language.

However, there are times when you will want to expand on the built-in list, such as if you have an industry term that is so common that it doesn’t provide any value to a query.

Removing Words If No Results

Then there are queries where all of the words bring value but searched together, bring back no results.

Often searchers will be happy with less precise results in exchange for increased recall. In these situations, we want to remove words to put results in front of the user.

There are two main ways to do this: make all query words optional or remove words from the query.

If you make all of the query words optional when there are no results, you assume that records that match more words are more relevant, all else being equal.

An alternative is to remove query words one-by-one until you find matching records or there are no more words left in the query.

You can start by removing the first words or the last words. Last word removal tends to be more common.

Making all of the query words optional and then sorting by the number of matching words is generally the better approach, especially when paired with the removal of stop words.

This is, however, a less ideal approach when precision is important, and you want to show that, indeed, there were no results that matched all of the query words.

One person may be alright with seeing Uniqlo v-neck sweaters for a query of “Gucci v-neck sweaters,” while another sees those results as completely irrelevant.

Of course, another scenario is to know which words are actually providing the most value to the query and mark them as optional.

This is generally not seen in keyword-based search engines, but there have been some search engines that will take a similar approach for stop words.

For example, some search engines have experimented with discounting common words automatically without stop word lists, using inverse document frequency.

As with synonyms, query word removal will expand recall, usually without a hit on precision. Because stop words don’t provide much value to the result, you won’t lose out on good results by not including them.

Similarly, removing words when there are no results has no precision to lessen because there are no results that could be precise.

Query Scoping

We’ve primarily looked at situations where a searcher is overly precise and the search engine needs to expand the query to improve recall.

There are, likewise, times when the search engine can understand the user intent, and query scoping can increase precision.

Search expert Daniel Tunkelang calls query scoping “one of the most effective ways to capture query intent.”

He identifies two major steps in query scoping. The first is query tagging, followed by the scoping itself.

Query tagging identifies the parts of a query with the attributes they likely belong to.

For example, “Marcia” will most likely match to a “name” attribute, while “The Brady Bunch” maps to a “show title” attribute.

Query scoping takes this mapping and restricts attribute searching for these query parts.

The search engine doesn’t search “Brady” inside of the “name” attribute or “Marcia” in the “show title” attribute.

This kind of query scoping reduces recall, as we won’t see results that have that text in other attributes.

However, the outcome should be that we have higher precision because we aren’t searching for irrelevant attributes.

We could increase precision even further by filtering results by known attribute values.

This doesn’t even require machine learning, as the search engine can do a simple match between facet values and text in a query.

This reduces recall heavily, so we can also find a nice balance where we instead boost results with matching values rather than filtering.

The boosted results will tend to be the best matching ones because the query-filter match gives you a signal that it is what the searcher wants.

Through your analytics or hands-on experience, if you find that your search is missing user intent and requiring searches to be “just right,” then query expansion and query scoping are two ways to calibrate your precision and recall.

These approaches will let in results that should be there and leave out the ones that shouldn’t.

More resources:


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Google On Traffic Diversity As A Ranking Factor

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Google answers the question of whether traffic diversity is a ranking factor for SEO

Google’s SearchLiaison tweeted encouragement to diversify traffic sources, being clear about the reason he was recommending it. Days later, someone followed up to ask if traffic diversity is a ranking factor, prompting SearchLiaison to reiterate that it is not.

What Was Said

The question of whether diversity of traffic was a ranking factor was elicited from a previous tweet in a discussion about whether a site owner should be focusing on off-site promotion.

Here’s the question from the original discussion that was tweeted:

“Can you please tell me if I’m doing right by focusing on my site and content – writing new articles to be found through search – or if I should be focusing on some off-site effort related to building a readership? It’s frustrating to see traffic go down the more effort I put in.”

SearchLiaison split the question into component parts and answered each one. When it came to the part about off-site promotion, SearchLiaison (who is Danny Sullivan), shared from his decades of experience as a journalist and publisher covering technology and search marketing.

I’m going to break down his answer so that it’s clearer what he meant

This is the part from the tweet that talks about off-site activities:

“As to the off-site effort question, I think from what I know from before I worked at Google Search, as well as my time being part of the search ranking team, is that one of the ways to be successful with Google Search is to think beyond it.”

What he is saying here is simple, don’t limit your thinking about what to do with your site to thinking about how to make it appeal to Google.

He next explains that sites that rank tend to be sites that are created to appeal to people.

SearchLiaison continued:

“Great sites with content that people like receive traffic in many ways. People go to them directly. They come via email referrals. They arrive via links from other sites. They get social media mentions.”

What he’s saying there is that you’ll know that you’re appealing to people if people are discussing your site in social media, if people are referring the site in social media and if other sites are citing it with links.

Other ways to know that a site is doing well is when when people engage in the comments section, send emails asking follow up questions, and send emails of thanks and share anecdotes of their success or satisfaction with a product or advice.

Consider this, fast fashion site Shein at one point didn’t rank for their chosen keyword phrases, I know because I checked out of curiosity. But they were at the time virally popular and making huge amounts of sales by gamifying site interaction and engagement, propelling them to become a global brand. A similar strategy propelled Zappos when they pioneered no-questions asked returns and cheerful customer service.

SearchLiaison continued:

“It just means you’re likely building a normal site in the sense that it’s not just intended for Google but instead for people. And that’s what our ranking systems are trying to reward, good content made for people.”

SearchLiaison explicitly said that building sites with diversified content is not a ranking factor.

He added this caveat to his tweet:

“This doesn’t mean you should get a bunch of social mentions, or a bunch of email mentions because these will somehow magically rank you better in Google (they don’t, from how I know things).”

Despite The Caveat…

A journalist tweeted this:

“Earlier this week, @searchliaison told people to diversify their traffic. Naturally, people started questioning whether that meant diversity of traffic was a ranking factor.

So, I asked @iPullRank what he thought.”

SearchLiaison of course answered that he explicitly said it’s not a ranking factor and linked to his original tweet that I quoted above.

He tweeted:

“I mean that’s not exactly what I myself said, but rather repeat all that I’ll just add the link to what I did say:”

The journalist responded:

“I would say this is calling for publishers to diversify their traffic since you’re saying the great sites do it. It’s the right advice to give.”

And SearchLiaison answered:

“It’s the part of “does it matter for rankings” that I was making clear wasn’t what I myself said. Yes, I think that’s a generally good thing, but it’s not the only thing or the magic thing.”

Not Everything Is About Ranking Factors

There is a longstanding practice by some SEOs to parse everything that Google publishes for clues to how Google’s algorithm works. This happened with the Search Quality Raters guidelines. Google is unintentionally complicit because it’s their policy to (in general) not confirm whether or not something is a ranking factor.

This habit of searching for “ranking factors” leads to misinformation. It takes more acuity to read research papers and patents to gain a general understanding of how information retrieval works but it’s more work to try to understand something than skimming a PDF for ranking papers.

The worst approach to understanding search is to invent hypotheses about how Google works and then pore through a document to confirm those guesses (and falling into the confirmation bias trap).

In the end, it may be more helpful to back off of exclusively optimizing for Google and focus at least equally as much in optimizing for people (which includes optimizing for traffic). I know it works because I’ve been doing it for years.

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The Complete Guide to Google My Business for Local SEO

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The Complete Guide to Google My Business

What is Google My Business?

Google My Business (GMB) is a free tool that business owners can use to manage their online presence across Google Search and Google Maps.

This profile also puts out important business details, such as address, phone number, and operating hours, making it easily accessible to potential customers. 

Google My Business profile shown on Google MapsGoogle My Business profile shown on Google Maps

When you click on a business listing in the search results it will open a detailed sidebar on the right side of the screen, providing comprehensive information about the business. 

This includes popular times, which show when the business is busiest, a Q&A section where potential users can ask questions and receive responses from the business or other customers, and a photos and videos section that showcases products and services. Customer reviews and ratings are also displayed, which are crucial for building trust and credibility.

Business details on Google My Business profileBusiness details on Google My Business profile

Using Google My Business for Local SEO

Having an optimized Google Business Profile ensures that your business is visible, searchable, and can attract potential customers who are looking for your products and services.

  • Increased reliance on online discovery: More consumers are going online to search and find local businesses, making it crucial to have a GMB listing.
  • Be where your customers are searching: GMB ensures your business information is accurate and visible on Google Search and Maps, helping you stay competitive.
  • Connect with customers digitally: GMB allows customers to connect with your business through various channels, including messaging and reviews.
  • Build your online reputation: GMB makes it easy for customers to leave reviews, which can improve your credibility and trustworthiness.
  • Location targeting: GMB enables location-based targeting, showing your ads to people searching for businesses in your exact location.
  • Measurable results: GMB provides actionable analytics, allowing you to track your performance and optimize your listing.

How to Set Up Google My Business

If you already have a profile and need help claiming, verifying, and/or optimizing it, skip to the next sections.

If you’re creating a new Google My Business profile, here’s a step-by-step guide:

Access or Create your Google AccountAccess or Create your Google Account

Step 1: Access or Create your Google Account:

If you don’t already have a Google account, follow these steps to create one:

  • Visit the Google Account Sign-up Page: Go to the Google Account sign-up page and click on “Create an account.”
  • Enter Your Information: Fill in the required fields, including your name, email address, and password.
  • Verify Your Account: Google will send a verification email to your email address. Click on the link in the email to confirm your account.

Step 2:  Access Google My Business

Business name on Google My BusinessBusiness name on Google My Business

Step 3: Enter Your Business Name and Category

  • Type in your exact business name. Google will suggest existing businesses as you type
  • If your business is not listed, fully type out the name as it appears
  • Search for and select your primary business category

Adding business address to Google My Business profileAdding business address to Google My Business profile

Step 4: Provide Your Business Address

  • If you have a physical location where customers can visit, select “Yes” and enter your address.
  • If you are a service area business without a physical location, select “No” and enter your service area.

Adding contact information to Google My Business profileAdding contact information to Google My Business profile

Step 5: Add Your Contact Information

  • Enter your business phone number and website URL
  • You can also create a free website based on your GMB information

Complete Your ProfileComplete Your Profile

Step 6: Complete Your Profile

To complete your profile, add the following details:

  • Hours of Operation: Enter your business’s operating hours to help customers plan their visits.
  • Services: List the services your business offers to help customers understand what you do.
  • Description: Write a detailed description of your business to help customers understand your offerings.

Now that you know how to set up your Google My Business account, all that’s left is to verify it. 

Verification is essential for you to manage and update business information whenever you need to, and for Google to show your business profile to the right users and for the right search queries. 

If you are someone who wants to claim their business or is currently on the last step of setting up their GMB, this guide will walk you through the verification process to solidify your business’ online credibility and visibility.

How to Verify Google My Business

There are several ways you can verify your business, including:

  • Postcard Verification: Google will send a postcard to your business address with a verification code. Enter the code on your GMB dashboard to verify.
  • Phone Verification: Google will call your business phone number and provide a verification code. Enter the code on your GMB dashboard to verify.
  • Email Verification: If you have a business email address, you can use it to verify your listing.
  • Instant Verification: If you have a Google Analytics account linked to your business, you can use instant verification.

How to Claim & Verify an Existing Google My Business Profile

If your business has an existing Google My Business profile, and you want to claim it, then follow these steps:

Sign in to Google AccountSign in to Google Account

Step 1: Sign in to Google My Business

Access Google My Business: Go to the Google My Business website and sign in with your Google account. If you don’t have a Google account, create one by following the sign-up process.

Search for Your BusinessSearch for Your Business

Step 2: Search for Your Business

Enter your business name in the search bar to find your listing. If your business is already listed, you will see it in the search results.

Request access to existing Google My Business accountRequest access to existing Google My Business account

Step 3: Claim Your Listing

If your business is not already claimed, you will see a “Claim this business” button. Click on this button to start the claiming process.

Editing business information on Google My BusinessEditing business information on Google My Business

Step 4: Complete Your Profile

Once your listing is verified, you can complete your profile by adding essential business information such as:

  • Business Name: Ensure it matches your business name.
  • Address: Enter your business address accurately.
  • Phone Number: Enter your business phone number.
  • Hours of Operation: Specify your business hours.
  • Categories: Choose relevant categories that describe your business.
  • Description: Write a brief description of your business.

Step 5: Manage Your Listing

Regularly check and update your listing to ensure it remains accurate and up-to-date. Respond to customer reviews and use the insights provided by Google Analytics to improve your business.

Unverified Google My Business profileUnverified Google My Business profile

Step 6: Verification 

Verify your business through postcard, email, or phone numbers as stated above. 

Now that you have successfully set up and verified your Google My Business listing, it’s time to optimize it for maximum visibility and effectiveness. By doing this, you can improve your local search rankings, increase customer engagement, and drive more conversions.

How to Optimize Google My Business

Here are the tips that I usually do when I’m optimizing my GMB account: 

    1. Complete Your Profile: Start by ensuring every section applicable to your business is filled out with accurate and up-to-date information. Use your real business name without keyword stuffing to avoid suspension. Ensure your address and phone number are consistent with those on your website and other online directories, and add a link to your website and social media accounts.
    2. Optimize for Keywords: Integrate relevant keywords into your business description, services, and posts. However, avoid stuffing your GMB profile with keywords, as this can appear spammy and reduce readability.
    3. Add Backlinks: Encourage local websites, blogs, and business directories to link to your GMB profile. 
  1. Select Appropriate Categories: Choose the most relevant primary category for your business to help Google understand what your business is about. Additionally, add secondary categories that accurately describe your business’s offerings to capture more relevant search traffic.
  2. Encourage and Manage Reviews: Ask satisfied customers to leave positive reviews on your profile, as reviews significantly influence potential customers. Respond to all reviews, both positive and negative, in a professional and timely manner. Addressing negative feedback shows that you value customer opinions and are willing to improve.
  3. Add High-Quality Photos and Videos: Use high-quality images for your profile and cover photos that represent your business well. Upload additional photos of your products, services, team, and premises. Adding short, engaging videos can give potential customers a virtual tour or highlight key services, enhancing their interest.

By following this comprehensive guide, you have successfully set up, verified, and optimized your GMB profile. Remember to continuously maintain and update your profile to ensure maximum impact and success.

Key Takeaway: 

With more and more people turning to Google for all their needs, creating, verifying, and optimizing your Google My Business profile is a must if you want your business to be found. 

Follow this guide to Google My Business, and you’re going to see increased online presence across Google Search and Google Maps in no time.

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LinkedIn Rolls Out New Newsletter Tools

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LinkedIn Rolls Out New Newsletter Tools

LinkedIn is launching several new features for people who publish newsletters on its platform.

The professional networking site wants to make it easier for creators to grow their newsletter audiences and engage readers.

More People Publishing Newsletters On LinkedIn

The company says the number of LinkedIn members publishing newsletter articles has increased by 59% over the past year.

Engagement on these creator-hosted newsletters is also up 47%.

With this growing interest, LinkedIn is updating its newsletter tools.

A New Way To View & Comment

One of the main changes is an updated reading experience that displays comments alongside the newsletter articles.

This allows readers to view and participate in discussions more easily while consuming the content.

See an example of the new interface below.

Screenshot from: linkedin.com, June 2024.

Design Your Own Cover Images

You can now use Microsoft’s AI-powered Designer tool to create custom cover images for their newsletters.

The integration provides templates, size options, and suggestions to help design visually appealing covers.

More Subscriber Notifications

LinkedIn is improving the notifications sent to newsletter subscribers to drive more readership.

When a new issue is published, subscribers will receive email alerts and in-app messages. LinkedIn will also prompt your followers to subscribe.

Mention Other Profiles In Articles

You can now embed links to other LinkedIn profiles and pages directly into their newsletter articles.

This lets readers click through and learn more about the individuals or companies mentioned.

In the example below, you can see it’s as easy as adding a link.

1718346362 491 LinkedIn Rolls Out New Newsletter ToolsScreenshot from: linkedin.com, June 2024.

Preview Links Before Publishing

Lastly, LinkedIn allows you to access a staging link that previews the newsletter URL before hitting publish.

This can help you share and distribute their content more effectively.

Why SEJ Cares

As LinkedIn continues to lean into being a publishing platform for creators and thought leaders, updates that enhance the newsletter experience are noteworthy for digital marketers and industry professionals looking to build an audience.

The new tools are part of LinkedIn’s broader effort to court creators publishing original content on its platform amid rising demand for newsletters and knowledge-sharing.

How This Can Help You

If you publish a newsletter on LinkedIn, these new tools can help you design more visually appealing content, grow your subscriber base, interact with your audience through comments, and preview your content before going live.


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