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POV: Google’s Hummingbird Update

On September 26th Google officially announced the rollout of their new search algorithm, Hummingbird, which had been live for at least 30 days.

The Hummingbird update is designed to better understand and respond to User Intent as well as further support and develop conversational-based search.  It is important because it changes the way the algorithm works.  The new algorithm is able to better understand semantic search with a focus on user intent, not individual keyword search terms. In short, Google is now better at breaking down long search phrases and questions to arrive at results that match the user intent.   Google has said that this change will affect 90% of search queries.

Four Key Recommendations:

  • Create relevant, shareable and linkable Content
  • Implement semantic data / tags
  • Leverage Google Plus
  • Implement Responsive Design for a ‘one site’ mobile experience

However, just because the algorithm affects a keyword, it does not mean it will actually change what is ranked for that keyword.  In many cases (most likely the majority of cases, given the lack of keyword ranking movement that has been observed from this algorithm change) the sites that are ranking for these terms have stayed the same, are almost the same, or have only had changes to Google’s Knowledge Base listing for the affected terms.  In addition, the majority of keyword phrases that are affected by this update are very long tail and conversational search terms and phrases that will have very small referral traffic and that most people are not checking rankings for.  Therefore, most of the changes to SEO performance due to the Hummingbird algorithm will most likely not be noticed by the majority of marketers except at an aggregate traffic level (although these performance changes are now almost impossible to identify because of Google’s recent keyword unavailable changes).

But overall, the Hummingbird update will not only improve the accuracy of the current algorithm, but will allow Google to more effectively process speech based queries which are becoming increasingly popular based on mobile search and voice recognition software.  And more importantly, it allows them to better scale their service going forward to new devices and search behaviors including more accurate responses to voice activated search and question based queries.

Impact and Recommendation for Marketing

The good news for marketers is that our recommendations for improving SEO performance remain virtually the same.  To improve SEO performance, companies should focus on creating quality, keyword focused content that answers the questions their audience is asking.  This has been the fundamental recommendation from Google and other search engines to all site owners for over 10 years.  However, the algorithms of the major search engines are just now becoming sophisticated enough to truly distinguish between high quality and low quality content.  Additionally, recent algorithm updates are much better at detecting and eliminating spam.

Therefore there are four key recommendations that should be prioritized to ensure your content is optimized for the Hummingbird update:

  • Create relevant, sharable, and linkable content

Increase the level of detail for existing blog and Web site content.  More detail will help Google determine relevance for longer-tail search phrases.  Additionally, it is recommended that your content specifically addresses the most common pre-sale and post-sale questions your audience has with regard to your content / products / services.

  • Implement semantic data / tags

It is recommended that tags (Micro data format syntax) be implemented across all relevant data on your Web site. This makes it easier for Google (and other engines) to understand the type / intent of your content and display what is relevant to the user based on their search query.  Going forward, this data will be integrated into search results in ways we aren’t seeing yet.   Ensuring that this schema is set up properly now will ensure your Web site will be able to take advantage of these new features from the beginning of the rollout and give you a competitive advantage.

  • Leverage Google Plus

If you haven’t figured out yet that Google Plus is going to be critical for SEO going forward then this is your late wake up call.  The Hummingbird algorithm promises more integration with Google Plus, especially around authorship and the fact that Google has full visibility into everything that is shared on Google Plus (unlike Facebook).  Therefore, ensuring that your organization is leveraging Google Plus as part of your social media marketing and implementing authorship tags on your site is essential at this time to position yourself for future success.

  • Implement Responsive Design for a ‘one site’ mobile experience

Google recommends responsive design for mobile site optimization.  This is important for Hummingbird as this algorithm affects long tail search queries and specifically answers to queries which are from voice initiated searches that tend to be more common on a mobile device.

Executive Summary

Ultimately this is a positive development for our clients as it means that Google will be in a better position to reward activities we have been recommending for a long time:

  • Write good descriptive content and publish a clean, well-engineered site following Google standards.
  • Make sure to include Micro-format mark up for all appropriate data.
  • Use responsive design for your mobile experience.
  • Leverage Google Plus within your digital marketing ecosystem.

Following these recommendations and Google best practices will help ensure your content is considered by Google for all relevant search queries.