On the evening of Google’s 15th birthday back in September 2013, Google announced the Hummingbird update for search. For some, this was earth-shattering news for some and completely missed by others. Many have not so much as blinked, either because they think of SEO as irrelevant or they don’t see how significant this news really is. Google Hummingbird is the first major algorithm change, a complete search engine overhaul, in 12 years!
This means Google Hummingbird will impact everyone online, not just SEOs, online marketers, and techies.
Hummingbird is not just news because it involves mega corporation Google. This is not the death of SEO some predict (not happening), either. It’s much bigger than that. But enough build-up…
What Hummingbird Technology Really Means And Does
Sites like SEO By The Sea, Search Engine People, SEOmoz, and Search Engine Land have covered the patented technology and implications thereof enough so I won’t delve into those aspects too much. To me, what is interesting is how mainstream media outlets are saying this is a shift towards Content Marketing or the end of Search Engine Optimization, as if SEO never overlapped or included strategic initiatives (it can and should). In one article, Forbes’ Jayson DeMers cites the need to incorporate a mobile strategy for content marketing. Is this really news to any of us involved with online marketing daily?
Let’s break down Google Hummingbird into simple terms, looking at the function of the technology and the quality standards for content:
- Contextual – Both search results and queries will be contextual so we not only find and serve the right type of content, while sorting it into a more digestible format. This may give more established sources such as news sites greater visibility while still providing the end user with greater control over search results.
- Relational – Google Labs provided us many insights into the potential of Google search. Google Labs Sets showed us how relationships between search terms and keywords are made. I reckon they discontinued Sets to reduce gaming of content but make no mistake: this technology has been built upon to provide ever-evolving search results through very complex fuzzy logic.
- Useful – The biggest frustration with any search is when results are limited to selling pieces, regurgitated pander, and boring news. The best-performing content is almost always actionable or at least compelling, if not unique and entertaining. Such pieces will now be more visible, reducing abandoned searches and bounce rates due to less relevant and useful results.
- Nimble – When I hear about mobile [design], page load times, compatibility, portability, and other strategic metrics and areas, it all equates to speed. Content will now pollenate across mediums faster and essentially be more nimble. There is also the growing trend of concise content and segmentation via serialized releases for the benefit of site visitors on the go.. Or those with short attention spans (Vines come to mind).
- Human – Marketing as a whole has become more humanized but many still lag behind. Google is following the lead of innovative marketers by making content more approachable, useful, entertaining, and compelling. This gives us creatives a greater opportunity to focus on human audiences instead of bots and keywords.
In short, Hummingbird simply addresses the trends that have been long in the making and forces everyone to finally adapt or fade away. The focus will be on a more human experience, whereas queries can be more verbal and questions can be answered with more relevant content. It’s now much clearer what quality content really means. More importantly, catering to search engines and improving the user experience are now one and the same.
Are The Old SEO Tactics Dead?
I know the more black-hat and technically-proficient SEO consultants and firms may be worried this will kill their business but, in reality, this will be a boon for us. I believe anyone keeping up with Google is starting to see just how valuable SEO, social media, and content strategies really are. By now, everyone should be including content, social media, and actionable strategies alongside the more traditional SEO tactics. I have long said that we do ourselves more justice when we position SEO as part of Content and Inbound Marketing. Now there really is no choice left but to do so or find a new line of work.
Keywords and link-building will always have value, though that value may be decreasing or shifting at least. Hummingbird shows us that Google is giving more power and control to the searchers though authoritative sites and compelling content will still play a big part in creating associations between keywords, search terms, and tangent material. As such, tags may still help here but the patterns seen across quality content, search terms, and authorities will support associations further. This means is more about what the end user finds relevant than what we provide as abstracts.
Excerpts, categories, and tags will provide more entry points but in-line content and social signals/sharing will play increasingly stronger roles.
Finally, links have already shifted towards quality over quantity and will continue this trend. Social sentiment and mentions are of greater value here. This means buying bulk links or paying for placement are even less viable (and more risky) than natural links, syndication, and more organic, if not viral, methods.
Other Hummingbird Impacts & Predictions
The general consensus is that SEOs are going to go out of business once their shortcuts and tricks start to fail. I would say any Search Engine Optimizer who has not been focusing on quality content and social media probably deserves to become obsolete. That said, it is not hard to adapt to the new, evolving rules of SEO. Survey the industry and target audience, then provide content that is relevant and proactively addresses key issues, hot buttons, and pain points. Simple.
If your content builds trust, creates urgency/awareness, and establishes you as an SME (Subject Matter Expert), you are on the right path!
Refined and consecutive searches will be extremely valuable now. Google has over a decade of data points now but the relationships will evolve and be reinforced over time in a more natural manner. For the end user, Hummingbird means you can use more conversational or colloquial language to get relevant results. The diagram below gives you an idea of how Google dynamically decides which results are a better fit.
Of course, there are still phrases and jargon that Google will not understand without further refinement or context. The promise here is that these types of searches will improve as more people perform them.
Google has provided search suggestions for a long time. Now, I think we will see more of these and some advanced search options that will allow you to choose operational and focus keywords. In such a manner, we will be able to provide a master theme and child themes in each query, whether explicitly or implicitly. Finally, we will see less spammy, unrelated, and useless content hijacking our SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages).
Some of these dynamic results are easier to account for now. For example, you may search for “pizza places that deliver” and the assumption will be that you are searching locally. Another safe assumption (high confidence) may be that “places” is more synomous with “restaurants” than the ranking/competition connotation, given the context. This data is already used via GPS geodata or Google+ profile settings. If you are traveling somewhere, providing a qualifying prepositional phrase such as “in Chicago” will now provide even more accurate results (higher confidence).
Due to Google’s need to monetize, I believe ads and partner sites will always receive priority over personal preferences and connections. Fortunately, Google has not forced such content upon us so I feel they will continue to do right by us and provide the best-fit SERPs. Paid ads will continue to play a vital role for those that lack quality content to increase visibility organically or just want to multiply lead generation opportunities.
The News Vs. Useful Content
I see two major types of content: news and useful content. From there, there are entertainment pieces, lists (i.e. 12Most.com), reference, and the like. Some content marketers focuses on passions and take a more authentic approach, while others tend to pander and jump on hot trends. A mix of both approaches is okay but the former is preferrable.
Google likes to put content into boxes as well. Currently, they qualify established authoritative sites as news sites and seem to give them priority if the content is relevant enough. Google sorts videos, images, blogs, and other content into chunks of digestable/scannable content, too.
There is nothing wrong with the news approach but keep in mind that it puts you up against stark competition. The major news sites rely heavily on content syndication and massive networks of contributors and guest authors. Sites like Huffington Post leverage the power of frequent updates to build authority nad visibility, but their content is hit-or-miss and is often unoriginal. I view Huffington Post as one of the few Google-approved content farms.
We small businesses and lesser-known thought leaders should consider how useful, helpful, and unique our content is. Does your content strategy employ a servant-leader approach?. This approach can manifest itself in the form of stream-of-consciousness or alternative (perhaps controversial) perspective content. Whatever your approach, I’d say it is better to focus on a more niche market than attempting any massive amplification or blanket messaging (go deep instead of wide, as in an adaptive/evolving SEO approach).
Drawing from personal experience, I know the most useful content is almost always buried deeper in SERPs while the top results are more generic “let’s cover all the bases or jump on the bandwagon” kind of stuff. As such, I feel we should aim to establish our own voice, presentation style, preferred mediums, and topics of choice rather than hopping on the crowded bandwagons. How does your content help, entertain, or empower others?
Our Real Job As Content Developers And Marketers
My experience as a consultant has exposed me to businesses in different industries offering a wide variety of products yet, in spite of their differences, these companies all share common opportunities and pitfalls. The temptation with any web site or online content is to focus on direct sales and “clear paths to revenue”. This short-sighted approach leads to missed opportunities, lack of customer loyalty/retention, and less sales (and referrals) in the long run. It also means your content will be talked about and shared less – say bye to virility there, folks!
Content developers and marketers alike should be CRO-minded. Conversion Rate Optimization puts us in a mindset of helping and empowering oir audience and customers more. When we identify conversion goals, we better understand buying decisions, what defines a quality product, and the true value of our offerings. Every purchase follows different paths before the decision is made so why not provide those paths natively?
The inherent value of online content, thus, is as follows:
- Enchantment – Guy Kawasaki is spot-on when he says being likeable is the key to marketing and social media in particular. I find people will do business with you if you are likeable and your product satisfies minimum or better requirements. Enchantment is about being approachable, creating common ground, and engaging others effectively, regardless of the immediate opportunity. It could be said enchantment is the ultimate level of engagement and professional networking.
- Awareness – Your offerings may solve real-world problems but people may not even be aware that they have that problem. Creating awareness means bridging the gap between a customer’s goals and what your stuff does. Positioning your product(s) properly is paramount here as your choice of words/presentation may or may not resonate with your ideal customer or target audience.
- Urgency – Urgency goes hand-in-hand with awareness and is almost synonymous but this aspect focuses more on empowering customers and giving them the confidence to buy today or soon. Limited-time sales are a good way to build such urgency but the overall process is more about reinforcing awareness and illustrating how you can make or save customers time and money.
- Experience – I try to avoid the word “expert” because it is often over-used, meaningless, and misleading. Showing your experience is more about conveying your specializations, core values, and passions.
- Trust – Empowering buying decisions before and after the purchase is a must if you expect referrals and return business. Some call this selling through your products but it is not merely about upsells, lead generation, and retention. Trust dynamics are tricky to fully comprehend but the basics revolve around doing whatever we can to assure and support our customers and prospects. Two of the biggest ways we build trust is through increased transparency and customer service excellence. Sharing our expertise with free downloads, advice, tips, and consultation sessions builds trust and credibility with flying colors.
- Transparency – The extent of your transparency and authenticity really depends on your comfort level, product delivery, and service execution. Automated businesses may opt for even more automation and self-help options but customers generally prefer to work with companies that have humans to interact with. Some simple opportunities here include providing team bios, live chat, follow-ups, and embedded contact forms.
- Exposure – Every tweet, blog post, video, comment, and share floats around the Internet indefinitely. The more involved we are online, the more chances there are that people will find us and ask questions that lead to sales and partnerships. Conversely, doing the bare minimum is a good way to ensure no one is talking about you or considering your products.. and staying hidden online.
There are other benefits but those are usually the strategic areas that come to mind first and apply to everyone; that is, if they value their customers.
Some see Hummingbird as Google’s continued war on SEO and cite the need to break away from Google. I disagree. Sure, they want to make money but this is more about removing the shortcuts and gaming/exploitation in SEO. This is great for everyone!
Content marketing should be about sustainable strategies and long-term value, not quick fixes and lazy tactics. There is no more set it and forget it. No worries: longer SEO campaigns means greater billability for SEOs and higher returns for clients. Everyone wins!
Google knows that if they start favoring paid ads and mainstream sites too much it will devalue their search engine. There are still alternatives out there for finding the content, solutions, and answers we seek and, let’s be honest, they do not want to lose their dominating position there. As long as we stay focused on a more humanized approach and drive value through all our content as mentioned above, we should be embracing Google Hummingbird and be excited about what is to come in the years ahead.