If aliens landed on Earth a million years from now, and there were no people nearby to explain what’s what, I’ll bet they’d think that the founders of Google were deities. It’s the only way to explain newspaper articles like this one, containing photographs of the very chairs that the founders sat in when they came up with the concept of Google. When furniture becomes worthy of photos due to the derrière of the person that sat upon it, something profound is clearly at play.

All mocking aside, this sort of reverence might be justified, as Google boasts that it answers more than 1 billion questions each and every day. People need this site to do their work, and they love the efficiency of the results they get.

Recently, those results just got a lot more interesting, as the company announced a new update to its programming. This change might be invisible to people who don’t work in research, social media, reputation management or other online industries, but it is a big deal for those of us who do, and I might argue, these tweaks might even have a deeper impact. In my opinion, those companies that can roll with the new punches will persist to host those aliens, while those that can’t adapt might die out.

Constant Tweaking

The Hummingbird update announced last week isn’t the first time Google has messed with its programming. In fact, the company did a major overhaul about a year ago, and some companies are still reeling from that change. This update, cutely named “Panda,” was designed to make search results more worthwhile by focusing on quality, rather than homing in on quantity.

Pre-Panda, if a client of mine wanted to dominate search results, I could follow a few simple steps:

  1. Find out what words were associated with that person
  2. Come up with words that were close to the original, but just a little different
  3. Pack blog entries and press releases with my keywords
  4. Release that data all over the web

The old Google used each one of my keywords as a sort of hook, meaning that the more times I could cram that keyword into an article, the better that article would look on Google. I didn’t have to worry about the quality of the piece, or concern myself with the cries of the readers who were forced to deal with repeated words, as long as I had my keywords all dialed in properly.

Panda changed that, as it began to shift the focus from keywords to inherent quality. Google’s new search would look at how well the text was written, how much authority the person writing might have, how often the page was updated and the overall quality of the site. As many bloggers pointed out, the word “quality” is a little subjective, and Google wasn’t all that keen on defining terms, but the update seemed to penalize content written by keyword-happy SEO writers who had no interest in education or entertainment. All of the work I did in stuffing, in other words, would be filtered to the bottom of search results by the big paws of Panda.

Making Results Hum

Hummingbird is the next logical step in this progression, as this tweak is designed to pay attention to the words that connect search terms. Basically, the creators of Google decided that those people who don’t work in social media don’t tend to type in searches with SEO key phrases. If I didn’t deal with keywords all day long, I wouldn’t type in “internet reputation management California.” Instead, I’d probably type in a search that sounded like this: “How do I get rid of mugshots in San Bernardino?” Hummingbird would look at the linking words here and provide me with search results for:

  • More mugshot websites operating in California
  • Reputation management companies
  • California lawyers
  • Pending legislation in California
  • News articles on the topic

The results are pretty comprehensive, providing someone with a full picture of what the topic means in the online world. Again, keywords don’t matter as much as the quality of the content, and the complexity of the search.

Finding Out More

Each time Google makes a huge update like this, people like me want to know more about what lines of code have been changed, and how a typical result has changed due to the update. Unfortunately, Google rarely gives out this level of detail. I’m not surprised, as other search engines like Bing are hot on the heels of Google, hoping to take over the top search engine spot. Sharing code could make these competitor sites a little more successful, making Google suffer.

But by parsing the news releases carefully (and reading a few sob stories from website owners that got burned on prior updates), it’s safe to make a few assumptions. Firstly, I think we can all agree that the days of keyword stuffing have come to an end. Readers and developers want quality writing, and sites that don’t deliver will be effectively silenced. Secondly, I think it’s safe to say that hiring an expert is more important now than it’s ever been.

It’s very easy to hire a writer and pull together a quick-and-dirty SEO program to sneak results past Google. Those who take these steps, however, might be wasting their money in the land of Hummingbird. If we want to move up in the results, we’ll need to make sure that the writing is tight, and that the content is produced by someone with experience and a bit of finesse. Going cheap just isn’t a good idea.

And for that, we can thank Google.