How Google May Rewrite Queries

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Within the announcement Google made earlier this year about the Hummingbird update, the search engine might rewrite queries, substituting some terms within them, when they think doing so might improve the results that searchers see. A very recent Google patent describes how Google might use a data-driven approach to explore how effective those substitutions might be.

Flowchart from the Google patent showing how substitute terms might be tested when Google may rewrite queries.

There is a history of Google making changes to queries and results to try to provide better search results.

Titles – In January of 2012, a Google Webmaster Central blog post told us that Google might sometimes change the title of a page in search results if they thought the new title might lead to more clicks and views of a page. While that might not be what the author of a page intended, it shows that Google is trying to make it easier for people to find the information they are searching for. I’ve run across sites where all the pages had the same titles, but unique main headings, and saw Google add the text for the main headings to those titles for each page.

In the screenshot below from a Matt Cutts video on snippets, (page includes some great suggestions for titles as well), Matt offers some unsolicited advice for Starbucks, telling them that it might not be a bad idea to replace the word “homepage” in their title with “coffee” since few people probably search for “Starbucks homepage,” and much more likely search for “Starbucks coffee.”

A Matt Cutts Google video Screenshot on snippets

Queries – Google has often made efforts to rewrite queries that searchers perform if the search engine thinks that search results might lead to results that better match the intent behind a query. This can include returning pages that include synonyms or good substitutes. Google also will rewrite queries with possible query refinements within search results, and will even ask a searcher in a prompt if they intended something different at the top of a query, especially when they might think that a searcher may have misspelled a query term.

OneBoxes – Google will also display one box results based upon indications that searchers might prefer to see things like definitions or weather boxes or local results in response to some queries as well. It’s not just a matter of which search results are most “relevant” for a query, but rather which results they think searchers might prefer to see based upon several factors. The decisions to show such results can be based on click rates that the one box results receive.

A Onebox result for the etymology of the word substitute

Hummingbird is specifically aimed at returning better (higher quality) search results, by how it may rewrite queries

Google announced the Hummingbird update earlier this year, on their 15th anniversary, and its focus is to rewrite queries that are long and complex, and similar to what people might speak on mobile devices, but hidden within that circumstance is an intent to also improve the quality of search results for all queries. As noted during a press conference the day that the update was announced, Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan told us:

In particular, Google said that Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query ‘the whole sentence or conversation or meaning is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.

~ FAQ: All About The New Google ‘Hummingbird’ Algorithm

How does Google work to return pages that “better match the meaning” when it might rewrite queries? Part of that challenge is in better re-writing a query to uncover such pages. It’s not a matter of finding pages in search results that have some of the words from the original query and looking for pages that might have more high-quality links to them, or more Facebook likes, or more Google +’s, or some other kind of “correlation” between ranking signals and ranking search results. It involves ways to try to better interpret the words within the original queries and doing a better job of finding pages that better match the intent behind a search.

Google’s Hummingbird update involves doing better when it rewrites queries by changing some of the words within an original long and complex query to capture the meaning behind those words rather than just returning pages in search results that contain all the words within the original query. This can be done by looking for synonyms or substitute terms for words within those queries from places like search results or Query Sessions.

Those substitutes or synonyms within similar contexts might share many similar words in documents returned for them in a Google search, as the words that they are replacing. For example, a search that includes “cat food” within it might be replaced by a search that includes “pet cat food” instead of just “cat food.” If you search each of those terms, many of the same words (referred to in this context as co-occurring words) might show up within the documents that appear as search results for each, like in the screenshot at the top of this post.

But how might Google decide whether or not when it may rewrite queries, that might lead to higher quality results? Do they come close to matching the intent of the person who performed the search with the pages returned?

A patent from Google granted this week explores how Google might test and investigate rules that they follow in finding substitutes/synonyms for terms in a query to rewrite queries, to see how well-received those are by searchers. The patent is:

Removing substitution rules
Invented by Dan Popovici and Jeremy D. Hoffman
Assigned to Google
US Patent 8,600,973
Granted December 3, 2013
Filed January 3, 2012


Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on a computer storage medium, remove substitution rules. According to one implementation, a method includes:

  • Identifying a revised search query that was revised to include a substitute term of a query term;
  • Identifying search results that were generated using the revised search query, wherein each search result references a resource;
  • Determining, by one or more computers, that none of the resources referenced by a subset of the search results include the substitute term of the query term; and
  • In response to determining that none of the resources referenced by the subset of search results include the substitute term of the query term, incrementing a no-match score for the substitute term.

Google may test these substitute queries by (1) exploring whether or not the substitute terms appear with search results returned, and (2) checking to see if searchers click upon those particular results where the substitutes do appear. The screenshot below is from the patent I called The Hummingbird Patent, and I mentioned this substitution process and substitution rules in my post on The Google Hummingbird Patent?.

This screenshot from the patent I identified as the hummingbird patent has the synonym rules pointed out.

The patent tells us that the advantages of using this approach to rewrite queries include:

  1. Substitute term rules which do not improve search quality can be identified empirically from search result data.
  2. Substitute term rules which generate only a few additional search results may still be helpful if the users respond to the substitute term rule with positive feedback.
  3. Specific contexts of which substitute term rules improve search quality can be identified, and the general context substitute term rule may be modified accordingly.

Much like Google may test titles that they change based upon whether or not those changes improve the click-throughs on those result, or decides whether or not people want to see Onebox results by whether or not people click upon them, this data-driven approach to seeing whether or not synonym or substitute rules for changing queries results in actual clicks can give Google an idea of how helpful those changed queries might be.

I’ve written a few posts about synonyms in search. Here are some of those:

Last Updated July 4, 2019.

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20 thoughts on “How Google May Rewrite Queries”

  1. I agree fully but was not clear till i read your full article. I am sure this will be the case as the results which we are now getting after the Humming Bird Update are better than the ones we were getting before that. Content quality and anchor text abuse have been the major issue which it has dealt with. Thanks for the article.

  2. In the past, I have read about that kind of experiments for very short time which I think didn’t end up well. I hope that Google is not pushing another big mistake, top SERP looks like a total mess.

  3. If I am going to search for something, there is a good chance I know what I am looking for (which is dictated by what I type into a search box). If the SE does not return quite what I am looking for I can modify my search – based upon what I see.

    Given that the SE’s are not doing the greatest of jobs with respect to quality results at the moment anyway – how does Google think it is going to improve my search term? A little more focus on serving decent results for the queries that already exist rather than trying to put words into the mouths of users would be time far better spent. (Of course – if I were a search engine and just changed all the queries to what “I” think they are because it suits me….)

  4. Illustrations…
    The effect of Hummingbird on queries can be seen with these searches IMO:
    ‘fix prevalent virus’ – may indicate an intention to get rid of a computer virus
    ‘cure prevalent virus’ – is more likely to refer to a cure for the common cold

    even though ‘fix’ and ‘cure’ are fairly close in meaning, the SERPs reflect greater sophistication showing medical sites for the second query and anti-virus protection for the first.

  5. finally the on coming storm of real contextual search I’ve talked about for years 😛

  6. I agree w/Pete M- how come Google continues with ideas that they know more about what I am thinking than I do? Because maybe if they do, then their selected/displayed results are “valid” and defendable even though they may not be what I was actually searching for?

  7. Hi Bill,

    Coming from long interval to hear you intelligent review and its true that Google is now rewriting search snippiest more frequently as compare to the old time (Matt explained in video.) Thanks!

  8. Substitute! This simply made me think of The Who song. Google are also upping their “voice” activated search features, which is possibly going to be very annoying. Listening to everyone on public transport asking about Justin Bieber will tax anyone’s patience! Still, with Hummingbird it’s perhaps best to just wait and see what happens. Happy Christmas to everyone, by the way!

  9. It will be interesting to see the results if these changes are actually implemented. I also tend to believe people know exactly what they are searching for and the quality of the actual results is more important.

  10. The further along Google gets, the more control Google seems to be exercising over the entire process.

    It appears that many updates Google undertakes “nudges” users in a specific direction.

    There are times that I have to insist that Google does not know what I am searching for. Sometimes, this takes several attempts at the search to override Google’s “suggestions.” I think I know better than Google what information I’m looking for.

    That isn’t to say that auto-fills and suggested searches at the bottom of the search results pages aren’t sometimes (usually?) helpful.

    Has anyone else had this experience or is it just my imagination?

  11. Hi Bill,
    First of all thank you for sharing the information. As you said that google rewrite the queries for better search results. It will be interesting to see the results after the changes.

  12. When you really think about it, it’s as if Google is trying to read our minds. What’s it all about? Speed. Isn’t that what their ‘thing’ was for a long time? The most results in the shortest period of time? Anyway, sometimes them interpreting my queries is good, sometimes not. 🙂

  13. Its very interesting to see where Google is really going with all of this. They say they want better results for people when they search but to many marketers just try to find loop holes with the algo to make their clients stand out. Its going to be important to watch what happens.

  14. I still really do think the target of Google is: what would a human do. If you look into most of changes, everything if going towards human behaviour. “Unnatural” links and link structures are being destroyed and if you listen to Cutts it is all about natural natural natural and “where and how YOU would expect it to be”.

  15. Google is diverting their focus from writing machine query in the search instead by adding the statement like human language in the search engine to show the more appropriate results to enhance user satisfaction level with Google search .Hummingbird update proves that now google advanced their search options which are near to NLP.

  16. I also wonder when these sorts of changes are going to come into effect – it will be interesting to see what happens to search results as they currently stand (how many will drop and rise instantly?). I also hope that this isn’t another of Google’s ways to push their own agenda, as they’ve made changes in the past that have turned out to be a big mistake – we can only hope that they undertake rigorous testing before doing anything permanent.

  17. Thank you for an insightful presentation of GOOGLE capabilities. Many of us never knew about a few things which get us advantage in SEO & here I must say a great tip to go

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