Does plural mean more than one? Not to Google, not always

June 26, 2009


One question I am asked a lot is why searches performed on singular and plural forms of keyphrases pull up different results in Google. People cannot understand why their website ranks higher for one form then the other.

The answer is, to Google cat does not necessarily mean “one cat” and cats “more than one”. In many cases, Google sees a clear distinction in the intention of searchers when using the different forms.  In this case the singular form of “cat” might pull up search results for the animal, a tractor or a type of pump, whereas “cats” will pull up results for the animal.

Sometimes search results are mixed due to the ambivalent nature of a search term, i.e, “mold removal”.  Is a searcher looking for environmental information or a mold removal service?

To illustrate further, let’s take a look at the top 10 search results in Google for “medical vacation” and “medical vacations”.

Using the singular form “medical vacation” you will find that the top results mostly include websites that coordinate medical vacations. So, if that’s your business, great! However, a search on the plural form “medical vacations” provides a more mixed bag of goods, and mainly focuses on the concept of medical vacations, the rise in popularity, whether having surgery abroad is a good idea, rental homes, etc.

Another example…

Searching for “credit card machine” will mostly pull up companies offering specific equipment and merchant accounts, whereas the results for “credit card machines” lean more towards sites that offer price shopping, like wholesale equipment, warehouses, low price guarantees, etc.

You can see the logic behind this. Someone searching for a specific credit card machine or merchant account is more likely to search on the singular form i.e., “credit card machine for my business” and someone shopping for the best prices is more likely to use the plural form, i.e., “best deals on credit card machines”.

Can your site rank for both singular and plural forms of your keywords?

Many times it is important that your website rank highly for both the singular and plural forms of your keywords.  To be successful, you have to understand that Google takes human search behavior into consideration when deciding which results best match a searcher’s intentions.  You cannot simply repeat both forms of the keywords on your home page and expect to rank for both, because Google may be targeting a completely different audience for each.  Google will draw its conclusion as to which category they think your site fits best based on the content of your page.  Therefore, different pages with different focuses have to be created.

How do you know which form to use?

First do a search on the singular form of your keywords and look at the “big picture”. What types of sites are pulling up? Do you see a pattern? Are they offering the same type of product or service, or are they providing educational information? Do the sites seem to target customers searching for specific products and services or customers shopping for deals or looking for information? Now do the same with the plural form.

After performing the searches, determine which form is most relevant to your business or service. That is the keyphrase you should focus on first. The reason? Increasing traffic to your site does not mean a thing if the visits do not convert to sales. Make sure you are focusing on the most relevant category.

In other words, if an individual is doing research and looking for background information on the rise in popularity of “medical vacations”, then chances are he is not interested in a medical vacation himself, though there is always the possibility that he will read something that will convince him that he should take a medical vacation in the future. But if Google has determined that an individual uses the singular form “medical vacation” more often when looking for a website coordinating those types of services and that is the business you are in, then chances are the singular form will bring more targeted traffic to your site (yes, more sales). Though you do not necessarily want to blow off the “down the road” opportunity, you should focus on the most relevant category first.

Also, keep in mind that Google REALLY likes educational and informational sites and they are almost impossible to compete with. If searching on a plural form of your keyphrase pulls up a majority of websites that are informational in nature, then you have your work cut out for you and that may make the decision for you!

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