If two search terms are used interchangeably by a website, does Google actually realise those terms are being used in that way, or does it penalise the website and view it as a way of artificially inflating search engine rankings?
The short answer to that is yes to the first question, and no to the second. Google is generally happy to accept the use of interchangeable keywords, or synonyms, like car and automobile. However, there is a caveat to that, and that is that the interchangeable words will have to be used in a natural way and will need to be explained. For example if a business manufactures USB drives it might refer to its products as USB drives, USB sticks or USB flashdrives: each of these is technically the same product, but each will rank separately and differently forpurposes. Google sees no reason why these terms can’t be used interchangeably, so long as the website doesn’t use this to artificially inflate its search engine ranking and clearly explains why it is using synonyms.
Google has developed its own Synonyms Team which analyses interchangeable keywords and phrases and decides what is acceptable and what is not. If there is any element of confusion the synonyms team advises that the website should clearly set out in text why it is using separate terms to describe the same product. This information needs to be conveyed to the user to Google in a clear and unstilted way; otherwise a piece of written text stuffed with synonyms that all describe the same product will be viewed with suspicion. Too many keywords and keyphrases levered into website text will mark the text as spam. If the reason for using interchangeable search terms is clearly explained to users, then Google will not interpret this as spam.