What are synonyms as they apply to search? Part 1

Buy, obtain, acquire, purchase.

You don’t need a thesaurus to figure out that these English words and phrases are all synonyms — different words that have similar meanings or connotations in a particular culture. Synonyms in search are slightly different: words and phrases that people, regardless of their culture, use to identify the same concepts. For example, “pants” in the United States are typically “trousers” in the UK, but for high-quality search, these words need to be considered the same by a search engine.

What does this all have to do with your business? A search engine that’s able to identify these types of synonyms can provide more-relevant search results.

Want the details? Here’s Part 1 of our enlightening (luminous?) new series on synonyms.

Examples of synonyms

To give you an idea of what real-world words we’re talking about, let’s start with a list of synonym scenarios that often turn up in the world of ecommerce shopping.

  • A shopper searching for a “sofa” on an ecommerce site strikes out, then later realizes they’re referred to only as “couches”
  • A photography fan searching for “photo effects” instead of the more technically accurate “photography filters”
  • An online fashion store tagging a popular handbag with synonyms like “purse” and “tote” to ensure that all bags appear in the search results
  • Someone looking for a pullover using “sweatshirt”, while others are entering “hoodie” or “sweater”

Why are synonyms in search so important?

With search engines on ecommerce websites, synonym knowledge can broaden the scope of queries to accommodate alternate ways people might describe an item or concept. If you use synonyms in your search functionality, you can better assist shoppers as they strive to find (discover, track down, locate, alight on?) what they want.

Synonym comprehension on the part of a search engine can:

Improve search accuracy

If there’s one thing that irritates online shoppers, it’s striking out. Synonym awareness on the part of search helps fend off that problem by improving the accuracy of search results. It can turn that Sorry, we couldn’t find anything into a list of potentially suitable products. Search engines that can recognize that different terms mean the same thing (or are related) can’t help but return higher-quality results.

Cover search nuances

With manual synonym management, you can control the nuances of search results, which is especially useful for handling regional language variations and industry-specific jargon. Refining synonyms based on feedback and search analytics can dynamically optimize your business operations. For example, a B2B engineering supplies store might add “hard hat” as a synonym for “safety helmet” to cater to the lingo of both construction workers and office professionals.

Increase content discoverability

The inclusion of synonyms in search engine knowledge bases helps surface content that might otherwise remain hidden due to terminology differences. This is particularly important for business content creators who want to ensure that information reaches the widest possible audience. By linking common synonyms in search algorithms, sites can capture a larger segment of potential shoppers.

Enhance the user experience

Synonyms significantly improve content browsing and online shopping excursions by providing flexibility in the language that can be used during people’s searches. Shoppers possess varying language skills; they may not always know specific terms and jargon that are used to describe certain products and concepts. By accommodating synonyms, search engines empower shoppers to communicate their needs in their own words.

Mismatches between product descriptions and vague queries

A common issue in search technology is the gap between terminology in product listings and broader-level queries often used by shoppers. Adding synonyms can reduce the number of missed connections between customer queries and desired content.

For example, someone searching for “waterproof footwear” may not get a search result if the online catalog offers only “water-resistant shoes”. This is also applicable with terms that are less common. If a bookstore includes “graphic novel” as a synonym for the newer “comic book”, everyone can find what they want.

How manually adding synonyms helps

Manually adding synonyms for a search engine — identifying and linking terms shoppers might enter in the search bar with those used in product listings and content databases — can bridge the gap between vague language used by shoppers and catalog terminology. A business can:

  • Ensure that terms such as “waterproof” and “water-resistant” are recognized as related
  • Customize the search experience to match the unique vocabulary of the customer base. For instance, if shoppers typically refer to refrigerators as “fridges”, adding this synonym would let the search tool make solid recommendations to anyone and everyone needing a fridge.
  • Analyze customer input on search results to identify terminology mismatches and add new words to search algorithms
  • Monitor failed searches and frequently used terms to gather insight on how to improve product descriptions

By doing this advance work, you can improve search relevance and the customer experience, potentially leading to better shopper retention levels and higher sales.

Synonyms in industries

An in-depth understanding of synonyms can significantly enhance search functionality and accuracy across a range of industries beyond ecommerce. Here’s how different sectors utilize synonyms:


Synonyms are vital for retrieving medical information because terminology can vary significantly between professional levels. For instance, a search engine for a symptom-checker tool should recognize that “myocardial infarction” is the clinical term for a heart attack. This type of understanding would ensure that all relevant information could be surfaced regardless of the searcher’s medical knowledge. It could also help patients better understand their conditions and treatments.


Legal-database search can be augmented with synonyms to ensure comprehensive research outcomes. Legal professionals often need to search for case files and precedents using different terms that might mean the same thing. Take, for example, “premeditated murder”. Without a search engine accounting for synonyms, a legal researcher would also need to search on the term “first-degree murder” in order to retrieve all pertinent documents.


Academic research databases also rely on synonyms to bridge gaps between terminology used by scholars; it’s a help in fields where terminology evolves quickly or varies among disciplines. Consider “climate change”. While this phrase is commonly used among environmental scientists and activists, some older studies may be listed under “global warming”.

Multilingual contexts

In multilingual environments, synonyms across languages let people find relevant content regardless of language barriers. For instance, an English language staple such as “car” and its French equivalent, “voiture”, would be tagged as synonyms in a bilingual database. Connections like this would help guarantee that speakers of all languages have equal access to the same information.

Integrate synonyms in your search

By ensuring that synonyms are integrated in your search-engine functionality, you can provide the excellent search results that your shoppers expect.

Looking to start delivering better search results that boost your customer experience? With Algolia AI Searchadding synonyms is easy: you can automatically detect them and quickly accept or reject recommendations.

Ready to streamline your search with synonyms? Contact us. Not quite ready? Read more about how Algolia can automate this process for you in the second post of this series, releasing May 14, 2024.

About the authorJon Silvers

Jon Silvers

Director, Digital Marketing

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