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Google Problem
Keywords that return weird or unexpected results

 3:32 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

The company I work for sells bed & bath products, so keywords related to that industry are extremely important to me. One of the top keywords is (or should be) the word "sheets." Now, as somebody based in the United States, when somebody says the word "sheets" I think of bed sheets, the things you put on your bed so you're not sleeping on a bare mattress.

However, judging by Google's results for the word "sheets," it would appear that this is not the case. It seems that a Google search for "sheets" returns pages mostly related to CSS (cascading stylesheets). I realize I am biased here, but this seems like a major failure in Google's algorithm to me. As a web developer, if I'm looking for info on CSS then I will search for "style sheets", "stylesheets", "css" or some other term obviously related to style sheets. Returning "fact sheets" or "material safety data sheets" on a query for "sheets" seems to be giving the user bad info.

Basically my beef is that when somebody searches for "Sheets" they want info on bed sheets, but Google directs them to (IMHO) irrelevant sites, forcing the user to search for something like "Bed sheets." Am I off base here? Do people searching for info on stylesheets just type in "sheets?"

I have another issue with an irrelevant site popping up in the search results for another keyword, but the guy isn't a spammer, so I'm not really sure what (if anything) I should do. He had the #1 result for our #1 keyword for several months, and is now down around #3, but it's frustrating to see a guy with a lame site ranked so highly. Can we complain to Google about an individual site that's not actually spamming, or do I just have to live with it?



 3:42 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

Hi evock, welcome to Webmasterworld.

It sounds like you're wanting the precision of a human-edited directory (Yahoo! or DMOZ) but with the updatability and reach of Google. What you're seeing doesn't suprise me for your keyword (widgets... the real word may be removed by moderators). English is full of double meanings and since Google is meant as an information retrieval source and not a shopping catalog, it's to be expected that the results are geared toward information and don't automatically assume you're shopping. If I search for "stakes" am I looking for tent-stakes, high-stakes gambling, or did I mistype and want Omaha Steaks? I don't want Google to start assuming that I'm shopping, just give me the most relevant pages you can for the words I type in.

It's common assumption around here that sales conversions come from specific 2+ keyword phrases and not the general 1-word searches that are typically information seekers. If I were you and had a choice, I would take #1 for "bluewidgets" instead of "widgets."

>>it's frustrating to see a guy with a lame site ranked so highly. Can we complain to Google about an individual site that's not actually spamming, or do I just have to live with it?

How irrelevant is it? Like not even on the same topic and he's scoring highly for a commercial search phrase? What does it say about the keywords when you look at the cache of his site?


 8:56 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

English is full of double meanings and since Google is meant as an information retrieval source and not a shopping catalog, it's to be expected that the results are geared toward information and don't automatically assume you're shopping.

Well, it doesn't necessarily have to point to a shopping site. My point was that if you asked random people on the street, "What's the first thing that comes to mind for the word 'sheets'?" I bet 3 out of 4 people would say bed sheets. In the English language, "sheets" generally means "bed sheets." Very few people would associate "sheets" with stylesheets or MSDS. And this, I think, is an instance of Google's algo failing. I would have no problem whatsoever if a search for the word "sheets" brought up like an encyclopedia of home decor, or some "how to furnish your house" guide. Like I said, I just think that as the term "sheets" is commonly used in English, most people associate it with "bed sheets," whereas Google associates it with CSS/MSDS.

As for the other site, it's not really an "irrelevant" site, just in the universe of sites related to the topic, it would probably be in the bottom 10%. I think it gets a lot of brownie points for catering to a niche market (bikers) so I guess every biker site links to them (though there's only 70 or so backward links). But again, somebody typing in the keyword who ends up on that site will be seeing information that's not really useful. If you're expecting home decor and land on a page of quilts for a Harley, to me it's a failure in the algo. I've seen this guy in the #1 and #2 spot for months now and it's boggled my mind from the beginning.


 8:56 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

The first is clearly a shortcoming of Google's algo.
It should be said though that this is one of the hardest parts of of search engine's ranking mechanism, to get a grip on double meanings.

Several SEs have taken steps to tackle that problem, with more or less success. Altavista, Teoma, Fast are all on a good path with linguistic intelligence.


 11:06 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)


I think GoogleGuy loves you, he's always looking for ways to improve user experiences :) This is an excellent example.

Welcome to WebmasterWorld [webmasterworld.com].


 11:12 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)


Try working for a glass company and optimizing for "windows" some time.

Sheets are always CSS right? ;-) Afterall, this is WebmasterWorld...


 11:27 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

How do you know they want info on bedsheets.

If they did, wouldn't you type in bedsheets.

Sheets can apply to a lot of stuff:
The first that pops into my mind is
Music sheets not bed sheets, then there is sheets of plywood, so on and so forth.

I guess Google needs to install the latest mind reading technology so it can figure out what people really want by typing in a vaque term.

brotherhood of LAN

 11:29 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)


The noun sheet has 8 senses (first 3 from tagged texts)

1. (12) sheet -- (any broad thin expanse or surface; "a sheet of ice")
2. (11) sheet, piece of paper, sheet of paper -- (used for writing or printing)
3. (3) sheet, bed sheet -- (bed linen consisting of a large rectangular piece of cotton or linen cloth; used in pairs)
4. plane, sheet -- ((mathematics) an unbounded two-dimensional shape; "we will refer to the plane of the graph as the X-Y plane"; "any line joining two points on a plane lies wholly on that plane")
5. tabloid, rag, sheet -- (newspaper with half-size pages)
6. sheet, flat solid -- (a flat artifact that is thin relative to its length and width)
7. sheet, tack, mainsheet, weather sheet, shroud -- (a line (rope or chain) that regulates the angle at which a sail is set in relation to the wind)
8. sail, canvas, canvass, sheet -- (a large piece of fabric (as canvas) by means of which wind is used to propel a sailing vessel)

The verb sheet has 2 senses (no senses from tagged texts)

1. sheet -- (come down as if in sheets; "The rain was sheeting down during the monsoon")
2. sheet -- (cover with a sheet, as if by wrapping; "sheet the body")

Google would have to be pretty clever to work out which one of 8 to return for "sheets". AFAIK google must do alot of of its phrase building from the anchor text it finds, and with PR passed on I'm sure much of the talk about "sheets" is about CSS.

One brownie point for google though, they do list this category at the top
Shopping > Home and Garden > Bedroom > Bedding


 11:30 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

The first thing I think of when I think of "sheets" are bed linen. But I almost never say sheets in relation to that.

Saturday "sheets" were the ropes attached to the sail. Any sailor would tell you that sheets are ropes.

In the music biz, sheets are the score. Sheets means different things to horse racing, newspapers, financial analysts, geologists, glaciologists, and webmasters. They all deserve representation in the SERPs.

What you should be doing is looking at this as a great opportunity to get into the top 10 and be the only one that represents linen when someone searches on "sheets".


 11:33 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

actually I'm just starting work on a banners (flags) site :( :)


 11:36 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

"Am I off base here?"

I think you are a little off-base, evock. I agree with mrguy in that "sheets" is too vague a query.

Targeting the keyword "bedsheets" or "bed sheets" (or any of a hundred other variations) would be better.


 11:44 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

The reason most results are about style sheets/fact sheets and not bed sheets is that there are far, far more pages about those things than our humble bed clothes, because of the developer bias of the internet itself. The only conclusion that Google can draw from this is that the best information is not about beds.

(that'll be the 'uniquely democratic nature of the web' I guess ;))

Rather than a failing in the algo, I think this is a perfectly acceptable conclusion on Google's part - and it doesn't cause too many problems from an SEO point of view, because most searchers presented with irrelevant results will try another query or be more specific. 'Bed sheets' returns extremely relevant results.

If Google were to start messing around with things like this, they would no longer be finding the best result for your search query, but instead giving results for what they thought your query meant, which is dangerous ground for a search engine IMO.


 11:53 pm on Apr 21, 2003 (gmt 0)

Before the update after the US took actions in Iraq one of my web sites was getting lit up by searches for Saddam Family Photo (or variations of that phrase). Funny thing is my site wasn't even in the top 100 for family photo (or variations for that). Rather erie but it happens sometimes.


 2:38 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Good example.

who can tell me why?


 2:41 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

You think you've got a problem? Try searching for information about the island of Java (population 120 million) - I don't think a single page in the first 400 Google results is relevant!


 2:58 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Here's another one - Mexico (the country) versus New Mexico (the state).

search for "mexico" in google:

results 1 & 2: the country
results 3 & 4: the state
results 5 & 6: the country
results 7 & 8: the state
results 9 & 10: the country

Funny how it parses out, huh?

ps - re: java - ouch!


 3:19 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Why optimize for a one word query like "sheets" anyway? You will get a lot of useless hits eating up your bandwidth. I dont think its a problem with google, but the type of people that type this term in to find out about "bed sheets". What a silly qury.. as others have said, they would more sensibly type in "bed sheets" or "bedsheets".

Note that the main google index favours pages that have the word sheets in the title and various formats, incoming anchored text with the word "sheets" in it etc etc.

Google also naturally prefers pages with lots of info in them that get linked to by other sites, especially if you are seen as an authority on "sheets". There is just so much "information" on "style sheets" that it naturally trumps sites that are not seen as "authorities" or provide info on any type of "sheet".

Really, the evidence is showing that people are using more than one word in queries now. Going after one word queries, for many reasons, is getting passe. The ones that dont, when seeing the results you talk of, many will just add "bed" to the query and do it again.

So its perfectly understandable when you think about it why you are getting the result you are. And that, to me, it does not seem a big problem. Look for all the two or three word phrases instead. Dont get hung up on one. bed sheets, bedsheets, sheets bed, bedding sheets, bed linen, bedding material, bedroom sheets, sheets bedroom, hotel bedsheets, industrial bed sheets etc. etc. All in all they will provide much more traffic from google than just the one word "sheets"

Last uncalled for tip. Never assume that becuase you would use certain queries, others would too, especially if you are a supplier rather a consumer. Ask your potential customers directly what they would type in to find a product like yours. Im sure you will be surprised and get lots of ideas for new phrases to optmize for.


 3:26 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Well, I am in the process of looking for "bed sheets" ... but I typed in bed linens when searching! ;) Perhaps its a Canadian/British thing?

If I were looking for "sheets" ... it would be rope used on a sailboat which is fastened to the clew of the sail! :)

This isn't a fault of the Google algo ... it is a fault of the English language. Too many meanings for the same word. Its silly!


Most department stores have a "Bed, Bath and Linen" section. I don't recall ever seeing a "bed sheet" section!

Chiyo (among others who have stated the obvious) are right ... you need to be more precise and optimize for more than one keyword.

I sell yacht charters in the British Virgin Islands. There are the United States Virgin Islands as well. Many people lump us together and call us all the "Virgin islands". We are often referred to as the BVI or BVI's and the USVI. Specific Islands are also targeted. Now (on top of that) think about trying to optimize for sailboat (correct), sail boat (incorrect), motor yacht, power boat, power yacht, motor boat, cabin cruiser, monohull, catamaran, charter, charters, rental, rentals, rent, bareboat (correct), bare boat (incorrect). And the list goes on. BUT ... it can be done and has been done. If all you have to do is optimize for the few possible variations there might be for "sheets" ... you have a cake walk!

[edited by: Liane at 3:39 am (utc) on April 22, 2003]


 3:31 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

I know when i'm searching i tend to use more than one word. (unless its a very obscure term)
Looking through my logs it seems like a lot of people use long strings like "where+can+I+find+information+about+widgets+? LOL

not just from ask.com referers either..


 3:32 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Good point, Liane.


 3:34 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

... and for the bakers there's "cookie sheets" ....


 3:57 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Seriously, I am in the process of trying to find prices for decent bed linens. Here are the terms I have used as recently as today and have rec'd very relevant results on Google!

bed linens
bed clothes
bed clothing
bed bath and linen
bed sheets 300 thread
percale bed linen
100% cotton bed linen

If you search on these terms, you will see what I mean.

Good luck!


 4:05 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

We live in the so called information age. One of the potential benefits of the Internet is giving people a practical lesson in clarifying their communication in search of information. This is a good thing.

Users of SE's quickly learn to be precise in what they are asking for.



 4:23 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Typically what I tell people when they say, "There's so much information on the Internet, I can never find what I'm looking for." I tell them not to search for what they're looking for but to search for the type of site that would have what they're looking for.

For example:

Searching for : "Washington Apples"
Type of Site : Washington Food, etc.

This method usually works for most things.


 9:37 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

>Good example. who can tell me why?

>I think you are a little off-base, evock. I agree with mrguy in that "sheets" is too vague a query.

I think the user (searcher) is always right. If a word has 8 different meanings in English alone, a search engine can't know which one you looking for by sipmly counting the pages in it's database.

Some other engines (Teoma, Wisenut, AltaVista, not to mention Northern Light) have already worked this out with 'refine your search' and I think Google has to catch up if they want to stay on top.


 9:40 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Edit: sorry, wrong button, see next post.

[edited by: HitProf at 9:43 am (utc) on April 22, 2003]


 9:42 am on Apr 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Liane: If you try Teoma for sheets one of the refinements given is 'bed linens'.

This meaning isn't very popular though, you have to click 'show all' first. But you can also choose for 'satin sheets' :) Btw: the refinement can even be further refined to bed sheets among others.

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