The Struggle With ‘Not’ & Prepositions

  • June 28, 2024
  • SEO
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While Google has significantly advanced in interpreting user intent, Director & Product Manager Elizabeth Tucker suggests that specific types of queries are still difficult to decipher.

In a recent installment of the Google’s Search Off The Record podcast, Tucker elaborated on the persistent challenges faced by the company in its quest to align search results with user expectations.

One of the primary challenges involve searches that include the word “not” and those that involve prepositions, as indicated by Tucker:

“Prepositions, in general, are another hard one. And one of the really big, exciting breakthroughs was the
BERT paper and transformer-based machine learning models when we started to be able to get some of these complicated linguistic issues right in searches.”

BERT, or Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, is a neural network-based approach for natural language processing that Google began integrating into its search algorithm in 2019.

The technology aims to understand the intricacies and the contextual significance of words within a search query, rather than treating the search terms as isolated components.

‘Not’ Fully Addressed

Despite advancements brought by BERT and similar innovations, Tucker conceded that Google’s capability in parsing more intricate queries still requires further refinement.

Queries incorporating the term “not” continue to be problematic, as explained by Tucker:

“It’s really hard to know when ‘not’ means that you don’t want the word there or when it has a different kind of semantic meaning.”

For instance, Google’s algorithms might interpret a search such as “shoes not made in China” in several ways.

Is the searcher seeking shoes manufactured in countries other than China, or are they looking for information on why some shoe brands have ceased manufacturing in China?

This ambiguity presents challenges for websites aiming to rank for such queries. If Google cannot precisely correlate the searcher’s intent with the content available on a page, it might struggle to deliver the most relevant results.

The Preposition Predicament

Another area where Google’s algorithms sometimes falter is with prepositions, which express the relationships between different elements within a sentence.

Queries like “restaurants with outdoor seating” or “hotels near the beach” heavily rely on prepositions to articulate essential user needs.

For SEO professionals, this suggests that optimizing for queries involving prepositions may necessitate additional precision.

It is insufficient to merely incorporate the necessary keywords on a page; the content must be structured to effectively convey the relationships between those keywords.

The Challenge of Long-Tail Keywords

The issues Google faces with complex queries are particularly pertinent to long-tail searches—highly specific, often multi-word phrases that represent a significant portion of all search traffic.

Long-tail keywords are often viewed as a valuable opportunity for SEO, as they tend to have lower competition and often indicate a high level of user intent.

Nevertheless, if Google struggles to comprehend these complex queries, ranking for them could prove more challenging, even with well-optimized content.

Looking Forward

Tucker indicated that Google is continually enhancing its ability to manage these linguistically challenging queries, though a complete solution is not yet on the immediate horizon.

Tucker remarked:

“I would not say this is a solved problem. We’re still working on it.”

Meanwhile, users may need to rephrase their searches or try various query formulations to locate the information they seek—a frustrating reality in an era where there is an expectation for Google to intuitively comprehend their needs.

Importance for SEO

While technologies like BERT and similar innovations have enhanced Google’s understanding of user intent, the ongoing challenges with “not” queries and prepositions highlight that there is still significant room for improvement.

As Google continues to invest in natural language processing and other AI-driven developments, it remains to be seen how long these issues will impact the search experience.

Implications for SEO Professionals

What actions can SEO professionals and website owners take based on this information? Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Prioritize clarity and specificity in your content. Conveying relationships between key concepts and phrases will make it easier for Google to understand and rank your pages effectively.
  2. Implement structured data and other technical SEO best practices to facilitate better parsing of your content by search engines.
  3. Regularly monitor your search traffic and rankings for complex queries, and be ready to tweak your strategy if you observe drops or inconsistencies.
  4. Stay informed on Google’s efforts to enhance its natural language understanding and be prepared to adapt as new algorithms and technologies are introduced.

Listen to the full podcast episode below:

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