Google Hummingbird Update: Challenge Accepted

Have you heard about Google’s 15th birthday present to itself? Last week, the world’s undisputed search giant rolled out an all-new search algorithm, dubbed Hummingbird because “it’s fast and light”. The name is a dramatic departure from the P-theme of their prior Panda and Penguin updates, but the company’s search chief Amit Singhal reports that Google Hummingbird is the biggest rewrite since 2001.

The shift’s been described as “silent,” despite the fact that the company’s engineers estimate it will affect around 90% of search results. The company’s offered few technical specifics on just what we can expect from Google Hummingbird, though search experts worldwide are quickly identifying what content marketers can expect in this all-new era of search.

Google Hummingbird’s Features

Simply put, Google Hummingbird appears to be living up to its name. It’s swift, lightweight enough for smartphones, and incredibly sharp. It’s challenging to summarize the update in just a few words. Unlike the January 23rd redesign of Google images, and the Panda and Penguin efforts to clean up quality, Google Hummingbird isn’t just about quality, content marketing, SEO or user experience. It’s about the company’s effort to create a search product that meets the needs of a changing consumer class. The following updates are among the most-significant changes associated with this new search algorithm:

1. It’s Mobile-Friendly

Google is well aware that mobile search queries will soon overtake searches performed on personal computers, and that voice recognition is soaring in popularity. That’s why the organization’s focused heavily on their mobile app recently, and why Google Hummingbird represents a step towards future where answering questions through a search engine is as simply as picking up your phone and talking.

2. It’s Question-Oriented

In most cases, consumers use mobile search less to find definitions and more to answer questions focused on simple and immediate answers, like “Where is the best coffee in New York?” Google Hummingbird’s objective is to provide the best possible answers to these questions.

3. It’s Semantic

Remember the early days of search engines, or the last time you tried searching for something in a basic library catalogue? You retrieved an exact match for your query, even if you’d accidentally made a typo. Google’s gotten exponentially smarter at understanding the context of queries, and this new search algorithm’s a significant step toward semantic search. As Matt Cutts points out, Google Hummingbird and other algorithms of the future are about “things, not strings.”

Due to the new barrage of casual language and conversational questions Google encounters on a daily basis, Google Hummingbird aims to provide search answers that are accurate enough for mobile users to continually rely on the product. This means Hummingbird will likely take your search history, locational data, social media, and other factors into account to try to best determine the answer you want.

4. Information Ownership Matters

One of the most specific changes observed so far with Google Hummingbird is a focus on providing the most accurate answer possible, from the original source. A specific example shared by the search engine following the algorithm launch indicated that the first result for queries for “calories per slice in pizza hut” now linked to Pizza Hut’s own nutrition facts page, where previously they’d directed to an independent nutrition website.

5. It’s More Conceptual

Even a few years ago, being able to use Google to answer a complex and abstract question like “tell me about modern art” would have been inconceivable. Google Hummingbird is a step towards an era of search that can deal with abstract queries and understand the context of questions. Is the ability to retrieve concrete answers to theoretical questions perfect? Nope, but the search algorithm is certainly an attempt to move in a direction that’s less like a database and more like a conversation with an incredibly smart human.

What This Means for SEOs Content Marketers

Few things are certain in the world of inbound marketing, but one thing’s clear: any time there’s a major update to Google’s search algorithm, SEO professionals engage in a backlash. Surprisingly, there’s been relatively little negative reaction to the most-recent change, and major search publications have declared the update a positive maneuver for companies of all sizes. Unlike Panda and Penguin which focused on revolutionizing the types of content which ranked well in search, there are few clear winners and losers in the new system.

Unless your organization has noticed enormous reductions or increases in traffic during the last several weeks of September 2013 when Google Hummingbird was being silently rolled out, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t notice any more dramatic changes in the weeks to come. That’s certainly not to say you shouldn’t study and learn how to adapt your content and SEO to the new search algorithm, though! Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about Google Hummingbird:

- Is website authority going away?

The authority you’ve built through your company website because of high-quality SEO work and continual commitment to content marketing isn’t going to disappear with the adoption of Google Hummingbird. Your efforts won’t be wasted, and continuing to focus on publishing original work, and earning social shares and inbound links will only do your website favors in Google’s eyes.

However, due to the shift in how certain queries are answered, there’s a good chance you could struggle to optimize around your competitors’ company names. Writing or compiling reviews and pricing in your industry might not be an automatic ticket to a #1 search ranking for competitors queries, especially given the shift in search results toward information ownership.

- Does my website’s traffic decrease because of this search algorithm update?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. While some individuals have reported a decrease in organic search volume since Google Hummingbird was introduced, Search Engine Journal’s Danny Sullivan points out this could be attributed toward either this update, or one of the other small changes Google’s engineers make on a daily basis. It could also be attributed to seasonal changes in search volume, or any number of other factors that have nothing to do with Google in the first place.

- How should I adapt my content marketing strategy?

The short answer is, you probably don’t need to do much of anything. That is, if you were doing the things you should have been in the first place. There have been no changes to Google’s official quality guidelines since the release of the search algorithm, so it behooves content marketing professionals to continue focusing on originality, quality, depth, and providing value. However, if you’ve been engaged in keyword stuffing, cloaking, or purchasing links, there’s a good chance you’ll be stung by Google Hummingbird. There’s no question it’s incredibly smart.

It seems entirely possible that as semantic search continues to rise, SEO best practices will continue to evolve. As the search engine continues to improve its ability to pick up on the larger context of questions, your need to utilize exact keywords in your title, as image tags and meta description will likely disappear entirely. Focus on covering important topics better than anyone else, and you’ll fly to the top of Google Hummingbird.

Stop the Silos, and Start Thinking Inbound

If there’s a single overarching lesson to draw from the introduction of Google Hummingbird, it’s the importance of a comprehensive inbound marketing strategy. There’s no longer much benefit in thinking about your web presence in freestanding silos of SEO, content, mobile, and social media marketing.  The search algorithm draws from all of these factors to provide answers to questions – social signals affect perceived authority of content, and it’s become pretty hard to do effective SEO without Facebook or a blog. Perhaps most importantly, Google Hummingbird’s clear focus on mobile search should send a resounding message to marketers that you can’t wait to cater to smartphone and tablet users. The time is now to mobile-optimize your website and email outreach efforts. Mobile is no longer a type of user experience – in many cases, it is the user experience.

Has your website been affected by the Google Hummingbird algorithm? What changes have you noticed with this new search algorithm?