Most of our readers will be aware of Google’s Hummingbird Update. On September 26th Google announced this update as something they had done already and as Forbes writer Joshua Steimle discovered, they hadn’t just been running it for a few weeks but rather a few months prior to the announcement. It’s also worthwhile to note that the Panda 2.1 algo update just took hold on October 4th so as you investigate what might be causing any fluctuations – if it’s current; it’s Panda and not Hummingbird. In fact, there have been multiple changes since the Hummingbird launch.
A unique point about the Hummingbird Update is that it wasn’t simply a tweak on their algorithm. Google essentially tore down their old algorithm and built a new one (that may be the greatest over-simplification I make this month). This makes it the largest update since 2001. But why would they do that? Good question so let’s start there…
Why A New Algorithm?
I liken an algorithm to a computer. Just like a computer begins with its core components (case, power supply, motherboard, etc.) an algorithm begins with its core set of variables, parameters, subroutines, etc. Over time we can build on this core set. As new video games come out I may add higher video capabilities. As mobile becomes more accepted Google can duct tape on pieces to their algorithms that detect for mobile versions of sites. But eventually a time comes when it makes more sense to simply invest in a new system; be-it computer or algorithm. To really illustrate the necessity for periodic overhauls I likely only need to ask one simple question, “The way you access the internet … is it even remotely the same as it was in 2001?” There hits a point when there is just so much new that an entirely different structure needs to be built to accommodate and allow for it and future expansion.
And of course, apart from devices and software changes, there are changes in us. Twitter taught us to want everything in 140 characters, Facebook taught us to be entertained while we get it and the boom of mobile taught us to want it everywhere. None of this really mattered in 2001 when the last algorithm was born and users today want more, faster and everywhere. Google needed an algorithm that accommodated all of this and had flexibility to push forward into what will come.
The biggest point of the new algorithm is to allow for what they call “conversational search”. I say “biggest point” in that it’s the biggest based on current technologies, however I suspect that they have accommodated for upcoming advances such as Google Glass and other visual-based “search devices” (they’ll be searching whether you like it or not) to help feed useful information and ads. But for now, let’s focus on the present; the new algorithm is built to predict and provide results not based so much on keywords but on…
These two words are the biggest takeaways from this update. While I love tearing through updates to figure out what’s changed and how/if to react, in this case it’s not so much about a specific set of strategies that need to be shifted to but rather our understanding of search. This becomes even more apparent if we consider that after the actual launch of Hummingbird (but prior to its public announcement) Google changed their infrastructure to stop displaying keyword data in analytics. Further, they also started pushing the knowledge graph (that box to the right of the search results that displays information on the query such as for the phrase “leonardo da vinci”) into more queries and adding filters. Google wants to understand you and give you what you want. The key then for us as marketers is to return to our roots (if indeed we are marketers) and begin understanding user intent and not just keywords. The idea of ranking for “my keywords” is losing weight by the day. First because of personalization with different visitors seeing different results based on preferences and location, and now because Google is working to understand more about intent and provide resources based on what they believe the user wants and not what keywords might be on a page.
Let’s take for example a query like “buy blue widgets”. If Google’s clear ambitions with Hummingbird works (and it looks as though they will) then it wouldn’t be as necessary to have the word “buy” written into the page and certainly not as much as one would have had to until now. With these changes (including future but foreseeable enhancements) simply formatting the page and data to make it clear you have a product and are selling it (through Schema, ecommerce signals, other elements on the page) would be enough. After all, Google doesn’t want their visitors to be inconvenienced with SEO. They want their visitors to find the data they’re looking for, in a manner that’s fast and understandable, and on a site that they trust. So the goal then is to provide exactly that (see… easy, right?)
What to Do
Let’s be clear, the algorithm is young and no one can tell you what it’s going to yield with a high degree of accuracy (at least nobody who isn’t under a strict NDA with Google). I’ve heard everything from The Telegraph reporting “it will be great for niche sites” to my own belief which is that it, combined with knowledge graph and what I imagine is coming down the pipe (maybe a subject for a different article) is going to suck for content providers that rely on ad revenue, improve local business results and help big brands. Either way however, there are things you can do to improve your odds if you understand the new game. They are:
- Create a variety of unique content. Essentially a site needs to be an authority and cover as many permutations of search and searcher possible. This requires a lot of content on a variety of different types and across multiple platforms.
- Go mobile. You need a mobile site, period and it is a factor.
- Use Schema. Giving Google as much information as possible to understand the content of your site can only be helpful. They may not know what all the elements are just laid out on a page, with Schema you can show them.
- Watch your analytics. Pay attention to your users and what they’re doing. Watch where they enter and understand how each type of visitor behaves. Create segments (again, probably a subject for a different article but you can read the basics here).
As we’ve discussed, this update doesn’t just change a method of SEO, it will change how we look at visitors, content and how to get search traction. Is it a good thing? That depends who you are. For the searcher it will be once they get the kinks sorted out. For website owners it means a lot more work across a lot more places with a lot more variables. And for SEO’s it means big changes to how we report success, what success means and how we know we’re on the right track before the revenue starts coming in.
Dave Davies is the owner and CEO of Beanstalk Internet Marketing out of Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a regular speaker at SES and SMX conferences and hosts a weekly radio show on WebmasterRadio.fm. Follow him on Google+ to keep updated on the latest goings-on with the search engines or visit Beanstalk's regularly updated Internet Marketing blog.
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Tags: Google Hummingbird