Suppose that the answer was "couch". The guess "sofa" would rank high on the Meaning side, and the guess "coach" would rank high on the Spelling side.
If you're just starting, keep in mind that these puzzles are hard. Dowsle puzzles can easily take over a hundred guesses to get to the solution; only around a third of people who start a Dowsle puzzle solve it without any hints.
If you're interested in this game and want to post your score or just talk, a good place to go is the Dowsle subreddit.
Dowsing rods have two prongs that work in tandem to direct you toward water. In Dowsle, you have two types of clue — Meaning and Spelling — to guide you over the rocky linguistic ground that hides today's answer. This is a place where you dowse for words, not water.
Dowsle was inspired by David Turner's Semantle, in combination with "letter match" games like Josh Wardle's Wordle. Semantle uses semantic clues, and Wordle uses lexical clues; I was curious what would happen if we tried to find words using both types of signals (ergo Dowsle).
The Meaning distance is based on a word2vec model produced by Google. In this kind of model, words are considered similar if they appear in similar contexts (as judged across billions of documents). The words that surround "king" and "queen" in text documents are often similar, so those two words wind up with a high meaning similarity. The meaning distance between words can often seem arbitrary, but the results are usually interesting, and sometimes weirdly accurate.
Dowsle calculates a Meaning distance between the answer and around 100,000 potential guesses. It then orders all of those guesses by their Meaning distance. The "words away" message that you see is how close your guess is to the answer.
Two words are near to each other in Spelling distance if: they're the same length, have the same letters, and have those letters in the same order. As a general rule of thumb: if your guess is red, then it has few if any letters in common with the answer, and is probably the wrong length. Yellow likely indicates that some (but not all) letters are correct and correctly ordered, whereas green probably means that you've got many/all of the right letters, some of them in the right order. It might be useful to try anagramming parts of your "in the green" guesses, or to try words that replicate some (but not all) of the letters in a yellow guess. There's a lot of deductive power that you can wring out of the Spelling distance by thinking about why two words with overlapping letters have different Spelling distances.
If you figure out the daily secret word and would like to keep going, you could look for the "gem" word. That's the word that is closest to the solution, using a combined distance of meaning plus spelling, that isn't just a variant of the solution. For example, if the solution were "smash", the gem word might be "mash", which means something similar and is spelled similarly. More examples: "meteor" might be the gem word for the solution "comet", and "sheepdog" might be the gem word for "hedgehog".
I'll keep developing this game as long as people are using and enjoying it. If there's something you'd like to see added, post your request to the Dowsle subreddit. If there's enough enthusiasm around an idea, I'll put some time into it.
The answers aren't random; I pick words that I like, varying between different parts of speech and subject area. I pull the hints from the top 300 nearest matches, trying to find words that are suggestive but don't give away the farm. The quotes that you see after solving a puzzle are pulled from a variety of sources (wikipedia, goodreads, etc.), and are probably biased toward authors that I happen to like.
No. This is really just an ongoing experiment in what might be a fun word game. So long as you enjoy playing it, I'll enjoy working on it.