Singular and Plural Keywords Are Not Always the Same for SEO

I received an interesting question one day from a student in a class I taught on SEO. He was in the process of optimizing a landing page for the keywords “waterproof jacket” (singular) and “waterproof jackets” (plural) and noticed that each keyword produced different organic search results across multiple search engines. His question was whether he should optimize his landing page for both of these keywords or just one of them? As you might suspect, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question (even though the actual waterproof jacket might come that way).

My student’s site had a high ranking for “waterproof jacket,” but ranked much lower for “waterproof jackets.” Obviously, any of us would prefer to get a high ranking for both keywords with the exact same landing page, because it is half the work to create and maintain, but Google and the other search engines are clearly telling us that the single landing page approach won’t work here.

We can all understand that some words that appear to be singular and plural (“cosmetic” vs. “cosmetics,” for example) are actually very different words and what people are looking for might be vastly different. But it is relatively new to see search engines changing up search results on a large scale for common singular and plural differences. We are seeing a lot more of it in recent years, however, so it’s time to think through what might be going on.

Although many SEO experts disagree, I always advise that people start a landing page by choosing a primary keyword and optimizing around that. It’s entirely possible that you’ll get high rankings with multiple keywords for that same page, but you need to start with the most important keyword, because at some point (like the one in our example), you might need to make a choice.

The moment you see that the search results for two related keywords are different, even for something as minor as singular and plural, it is an indication that it is harder to rank highly for both words with the same page. That doesn’t mean you should abandon your efforts, but you might want to take a look at what the differences are in the search results to discern any pattern between the types of pages shown. If you start mucking with your landing page to try to raise the rankings of your lower keyword, you might be successful, or you might lower the ranking of the successful one. Every change is fraught with some risk.

You should also consider the search volume and conversion rate for each keyword. Could it be that the one that is ranking higher is not the one making you the most money? If so, then modifying the shared landing page might be less risky because the potential reward is greater.

The biggest question is, “As you look at the search results for each variation, what do you see as the differences in the kinds of sites that come up for each?” Sometimes, I’ve seen that singular queries bring back commerce sites (“buy waterproof jacket”) while plural bring back overview sites (“what kinds of waterproof jackets are there?”). If that is the case, it might be tough for you to rank for both queries with the same page, because Google has figured out that the two keywords are looking for different kinds of information.

In looking at the particular example of waterproof jackets, I didn’t see that kind of pattern jumping out at me, but perhaps something more subtle was going on. You remember that Google and the other search engines are always playing with different search results to better serve searchers–I once asked if Google was experimenting with ranking search results based on conversion rates. For all we know, that was what was going on here. Some sites convert better with the singular keyword and some with the plural.

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