There have been two recent changes at Google that have the online marketing community questioning if keyword optimization is dead or dying – Now all organic keywords are to be “Not Provided” and Google’s Hummingbird Update.
This article will cover Hummingbird. Organic keywords are to be “Not Provided” was covered in Part One.
Google’s Hummingbird Algorithm
Google quietly began rolling out “Hummingbird” in August, the biggest change to their search algorithm in years. It’s not just an update as we’ve seen over the past few years (Penguin, Panda etc) but a new algorithm, basically a new engine.
With this new algorithm Google expects to be able to return better search results, not just matching keywords in a search query to keywords within content in its index, but by understanding the meaning of both the content and the questions people ask when searching (This is called natural language search, conversational search, or semantic search: Semantic Definition: relating to the meanings of words and phrases ). For more background info on the Hummingbird update see Danny Sullivan’s “FAQ: All About The New Google “Hummingbird” Algorithm”
As hummingbird evolves Google should be able to do a better and better job understanding the more conversational questions a growing number of people ask when searching, especially when using voice recognition search such as that available in Google mobile search apps.
I’ve been using Google’s voice search on my iPhone for months and I’m impressed with how accurately it understands questions and usually provides very relevant results.
While writing this article I was with some customers one afternoon. Let’s say their company’s name is Best Storage Container Company. To help explain Hummingbird we both asked the same question related to their business on our iPhones, “find me a storage container in new haven ct”.
Siri: My customer asked Siri. However, Siri didn’t understand the question.
Google Voice: I used Google’s voice search. With a Siri like voice we were told, “Here’s Best Storage Container Company near New Haven, Connecticut” (my customers almost fell out of their chairs!). In my Google browser at the top of the search results, after a couple of ads, was their local listing and map, followed by more web results.
Sidebar. We need a name for Google’s voice search. Siri…taken. Ideas? I like Gigi.
What Should You Do? Nothing. At least for now, as long as you’ve been focusing on what’s truly important for search marketing (more on this in a bit).
There will undoubtedly be some folks in the industry who will advise changes over the coming months based on Hummingbird as there usually are after any major Google update. I’ve already seen some. I’d recommend you resist the temptation to act on most of these suggestions. Historically most of the early advise after a major update are based on wrong assumptions. Plus most major Google updates are modified for many months.
Have the Ranking Signals Changed? Google evaluates over 200 “Signals”, both onsite factors such as internal links and offsite factors such as external links, when ranking search results. There has been no change to any of the important signals. As Danny Sullivan relates in FAQ: All About The New Google “Hummingbird” Algorithm, “In fact, Google’s saying there’s nothing new or different SEOs or publishers need to worry about. Guidance remains the same, it says: have original, high-quality content. Signals that have been important in the past remain important; Hummingbird just allows Google to process them in new and hopefully better ways.”
Picking up on what Google said about important ranking signals, Eric Ward in “How Will Google Hummingbird Impact Links? Here Are 6 Ways” points out that if PageRank remains one of the 200 signals Google uses for rankings, then having credible backlinks will still be important. For more info on backlinks see this Link building Video
Is Google Moving towards less reliance on keywords? Yes, Google is moving towards less reliance on matching keywords in search queries to the keywords in content indexed from the web.
It’s important to realize that while search marketers optimize for many specific keywords, search marketing has never been just about keywords and rankings. What’s important, what has made a difference in search results for years, remains the same going forward: Build a great search engine friendly web site that users love and engage with; A site that visitors want tell friends about, bookmark, share, come back to; Focus on spreading the word about your brand and the web site online and offline; And work to improve the conversion rate for important site goals (sales, leads, signups, donations, interaction with ads, etc).
Keywords will continue to be a signal for the foreseeable future and probably forever. After all these words and phrases are a part of the content that Google strives to better understand. The question we asked Google using our iPhones, “find me a storage container in new haven ct”, for example, includes keywords such as “storage container and “new haven, ct”
What will likely change is Google’s ability to understand what the content is about whether someone inserts a bunch of occurrences of the keywords or not.
Does Google Understand A Question & Available Content? An Example
I came across a Google video from 2010. In it Matt Cutts explains how its search engine works. He mentions the more than 200 signals Google evaluates to rank pages in the search results including, “How many times keywords and synonyms appear on the page”. This is most certainly changing with Hummingbird.
As we mentioned Google’s ability to understand the more conversational questions people ask should also improve with Hummingbird. In the video Matt asks, “suppose we want to find out how fast a cheetah can run”. To query the search engine Matt searches on “Cheetah running speed”. Again this was in 2010. Notice how he didn’t ask the actual question. Rather he queried the search engine using what one might expect to be a relevant keyword phrase.
Let’s see how Google handles the more conversational questions “how fast does a cheetah run?” and “how fast can a cheetah run?” today (Unfortunately we can’t go back to 2010 and ask those questions to see if Google would have understood them a few years ago).
I asked “how fast does a cheetah run?” using Google’s voice search on my iPhone. It understood the question perfectly (Google displays the question in text as it starts searching). The top two search results were right on target (I didn’t scroll any further as I didn’t need to). One search result was from discovery.com. It was a page from Animal Planet that answered the question within the text and offered a video about how a cheetah can run so fast. The other search result was a Wikipedia article and the answer was right in the search results description so I didn’t even have to click through to a search result (BTW: A cheetah’s top speed is about 70 to 75 mph). I got similar results when I typed the question at google.com on my pc.
However, when I asked the question a little differently using Google’s voice search I got a different result. This time I asked “how fast can a cheetah run?” Google gave a spoken answer this time, “Cheetah has a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour”. Wait! Both of the search results for the previous question said a cheetah’s maximum speed was about 70 mph. Why was this answer different?
When Google’s voice search speaks an answer it usually displays the answer in a box with a drop down arrow for more data. In this case there was also a thumbnail picture. I couldn’t quite make out the picture on my iPhone but it certainly didn’t look like a cheetah to me. So I clicked the drop down. Turns out the answer Google referenced was about a roller coaster called Cheetah Hunt that has a maximum speed of 60 mph!
So I’d give Google voice search an A+ for understanding questions, but it looks like there’s more to do to improve its ability to decide which of the available answers is most relevant. In this case it may have best not to choose one answer since there were two or more different but possibly relevant answers.
Matt Cutts At Pubcon 2013: Moonshots, Machine Learning & The Future Of Google Search. Google’s Matt Cutts speaking at Pubcon about “where will Google go in future” including Knowledge Graph (Understanding Entities, not just searches), voice search, conversational search, social, mobile, authorship and Hummingbird
Google Seeks Searcher Satisfaction: How Marketers Can Keep Up. An interesting look at how Google might evaluate the success of a search algorithm update like Hummingbird including how satisfied searchers seem to be with the search results based on variables such as the number of times visitors search again immediately after performing a search, the amount of time a searcher spends on the site before bouncing back to the search results, and how you might focus on improving searcher satisfaction with your web site.
FAQ: All About The New Google “Hummingbird” Algorithm. For more background info on the Hummingbird update.
How Will Google Hummingbird Impact Links? Here Are 6 Ways in which Eric Ward points out that if PageRank remains one of the 200 signals Google uses for rankings, then having credible backlinks will still be important and more