We’ve already covered two of Google’s most important recent algorithm updates – Google Panda, and Google Penguin. In this post, we’ll talk about the 3rd and most recent major update to Google: a major search update called Google Hummingbird.
Hummingbird is generally the most poorly understood of the major recent updates. In part this might be because it is the most recent, but it might also be because Humminbird’s operation is more subtle than Panda and Penguin.
Firstly, one major difference between Hummingbird and other updates is that Hummingbird is not focused solely on eliminating spam or punishing websites that violate Google’s guidelines. Panda and Penguin caused a lot of noise in the SEO space because many individual webmasters and businesses got hit hard. Hummingbird wasn’t like that – in fact, Google launched the Hummingbird update towards the end of August, and the SEO community didn’t even realize the change, until Google officially announced it one month later!
The fact that this major update was online for over a month without anyone noticing might make people think that Hummingbird wasn’t a big deal. However, in reality, the update represents a major change to the way Google understands search queries and keywords. In fact, speaking about the update, Google’s search chief Amit Singhal said, “Hummingbird represents the first time since 2001 a Google algorithm has been so dramatically rewritten.”
What Does Hummingbird Actually Do?
A solid summary of Hummingbird is provided by Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, who comments, “Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query – the whole sentence or conversation or meaning – is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.”
So what exactly does that mean? Well, it’s important here to consider how people actually use search engines. Experienced Google users might be savvy about how to combine keywords to find the exact content they’re looking for – if a pro searcher wants to find a local business, they’ll know to include the city and state they’re in and a couple of keywords precisely describing the service they’re looking for.
However, people who aren’t so web-savvy might not understand exactly how to form a correct search query. Less experienced searchers might issue a query like “moving companies near me” or “best moving companies”, for example.
A traditional search engine might handle this query by finding web pages that literally include the words “moving companies” and “near me”, or “best moving companies”. However, this doesn’t really help the user – the person who searched for “best moving companies” probably doesn’t really want a page that specifically says those words. Rather, they’re asking Google to help them find the best local moving company. Hummingbird will help Google better understand what searchers are really asking in their queries, and therefore provide a better overall user experience.
Preparing for the Future of Search
Hummingbird is definitely a future-facing update. Search is changing fast – only a few years ago, most searches happened on a desktop computer, from a user at home or in the office. Today, mobile and tablet traffic are beginning to dominate the web. And with rising mobile traffic comes changing search patterns – voice search, for example, is likely to continue to grow, and Hummingbird will help to address the inherently conversational nature of voice search.
The demographics of search are likely changing as well. Again based on the proliferation of mobile devices, and the rising scope of the web in general, search is probably starting to skew younger. 10 years ago, you could imagine that many Google users were probably adult professionals. Today, a much younger generation is plugged in. Additionally, search is going increasingly global, as Internet penetration in developing nations continues to grow. Both of these demographics – younger users and international users – are likely to be less experienced with search engines, and therefore more likely to benefit from conversational search optimizations.
Finally, Hummingbird integrates well in the context of other recent Google changes. The loss of keyword data to (not provided) is an obvious correlation. Between the shift to more semantic, conversational search, and the loss of actual keyword data, many SEOs are speculating that we’re beginning to see the death of keyword-based optimization. While that may be true, we’re still a long way away from a completely keywordless future.
Optimizing for Hummingbird
Can you actually optimize for Hummingbird? The answer isn’t completely clear. Many of the items that Hummingbird reinforces are just good modern SEO. In fact, most agencies and brands have not really implemented specific Hummingbird techniques, aside from again just keeping with modern SEO trends.
However, if you’re behind the times in SEO, this new update should be yet another signal that you need to modernize your search engine optimization. Here are some techniques for a Hummingbird-friendly website,
- Create Quality Content. At this point, “content is king” has become an SEO cliche, but Hummingbird is yet another signal that good content matters. As Google gets more and more sophisticated with understanding the meaning of content and deciphering quality, businesses must keep up by creating content that users really want to read.
- Stop Optimizing for Silly Keywords. In the old days of SEO, it might make sense to create a page that optimized for a word like “Best” or “Local” or something similar. It might have been a good idea to create a bunch of pages that were all similar in content, just to target different variations of keywords. These days, those strategies are way outdated. Each page on your site should be written to be useful for users, and should effectively target the keywords that are actually relevant to the subject at hand.
- Implement Schema.org Markup. Schema.org is a type of semantic metadata that webmasters can use to give additional data about certain content elements to Google. Basically, it’s a way to tell Google what a specific piece of content actually “is” – an address, a review, an event, ETC. This type of data is exactly in line with Google’s goal of understanding what a certain content element is actually about – rather than just looking at the keywords on the page. Proving Schema.org data to Google is a great bet for Hummingbird optimization and general SEO success.
- Don’t Panic. Although Hummingbird represents a major change to Google and an important indication about SEO’s future, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the current best practices. You still need well optimized title tags, correctly formed URLs, keyword rich copy, and strong relevant links. Don’t think that Google knows everything just because they’ve got an updated algorithm – if your website is about Blue Widgets in Dallas, make sure to use those keywords in relevant places.
Ultimately, Hummingbird is a very interesting signal about the future of SEO and really the web in general. Google’s getting smarter, and webmasters need to make sure their marketing strategies are equally smart. And if you’re looking for help developing a modern SEO strategy, please feel free to get in touch with the Tech-Critic team today.