The final week of September must’ve felt like the perfect storm for SEOs and marketers, with the news of a major Google algorithm update, Hummingbird, following quickly on the tail of the 100 percent “not provided” keyword reality news. But savvy marketers and SEOs need not worry—we’ve collected some thoughts from the experts’ experts. Here’s what you need to know about Hummingbird, and how to react to Google’s brave (not-so-new) future.
1. It Was Already Here
Though it was introduced by name on Google’s 15th birthday last week, language used during its unveiling made it clear that the search engine began using Hummingbird several weeks ago. SearchEngineLand’s Danny Sullivan jumped on the news with his Hummingbird FAQs, likening the update to “a new engine,” and articles in Wired and Forbes followed.
The good news? Pundits and industry experts agree: SEO is (still) not dead, and the primary reason for the update is for Google to continue getting better at serving up relevant results to its customers. This focus on relevancy should be nothing new to anyone paying attention—but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to pay attention to here.
2. Semantic Search, Synonyms and Substitutions
Sullivan explained that 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…,” emphasizing that the meaning behind the words matters as much as the words themselves.
This “semantic search” function has been much discussed already, and while previously present along with the Knowledge Graph—Google’s knowledge base used to enhance search results with contextual information, designed to move beyond keywords and understand the relationship between people, places and things—Hummingbird is focusing on natural language, like the way people speak, rather than just the way people search.
This is particularly important for mobile users who might speak a query to the search engine, rather than typing it in. On his blog SEO By The Sea, Bill Slawski says, “It’s being presented as a query expansion… which can better understand longer natural language queries, like the ones people might speak instead of shorter keyword matching queries which someone might type into a search box.”
In other words, the way people actually communicate matters more than ever before with the new Google update. Slawski went on to connect the dots to a recent patent published by Google, linking to previous patents that focus on synonym identification and substitutions. The patent, he explains, provides examples of how Google might understand words in a search query replace them with synonyms to deliver more relevant search results.
3. Answer. Converse. Anticipate.
This move towards understanding context and providing more relevant results—based on the Knowledge Graph and enhanced by our own searches, browsing behaviors, time on page metrics when visiting a page from the search engine, and more—should come as no surprise to those who have been following Google’s progress.
In the keynote speech at Google’s I/O 2013 conference, VP Amit Singhal summarized the company’s strategy for the future in three words: “Answer, Converse, and Anticipate.” It’s only natural then, with a stated desire to converse and anticipate what’s coming next, that Google would continue making algorithm updates to better understand real human context behind the words we use to search. Preparing for the not-so-distant future where spoken search becomes easier can only be considered natural as well.
Google further demonstrated this direction at the keynote with a development build of Chrome and “OK, Google,” a no-hands speech responsive search function, showing how we might be interacting with the searching engine with verbal communication in the future. Unlike the current iteration of Siri, Apple’s voice-activated intelligence personal assistant system, Google’s demonstration was able to pick out works like it and here and understand their context.
4. OK, Google
Now, the hard part – what’s this all mean for SEOs and marketers? We live in the new era of SEO, where gaming the system doesn’t work and trust is king. It’s not enough to optimize for a keyword anymore, and now you can’t even measure results for such tactics quickly. More than ever, the need to understand how customers talk about our products and services, and the problems those products and services exist to serve, is paramount.
Understanding why a user is searching, the problem they’re trying to solve and the language they use to solve it, should be every marketer’s primary goals. Writing your content for human beings, rather than search engines, is a no-brainer. These are all things you should’ve been already doing—and if you have, congratulations. You’re doing it right.
Hopefully, you’re extending that emphasis on the customer in other ways: engaging in conversations in social media, publishing your thought leadership on your blog, promoting your content in locations where your users are actually searching for information and offering new content that truly provides users with value.
Google is looking for that stuff. It wants to know context. It understands that “big data” and “marketing analytics” are related—so if you want to be found for one, you need to be relevant for both. Expanding your content net to include language your customers use to solve their problems will be essential to getting into Google’s conversations with users, now and in the future.
Casting that net means focusing on a bigger picture than your top five converting terms—not ignoring them by any means, but understanding the context surrounding how people actually talk about them, and adjusting your SEO and marketing efforts accordingly. In Google’s brave new future, it’s the only way to fly alongside Hummingbird.
Image credit: Mike Baird