Google’s market dominance as the world’s most popular search engine is the force driving all its pay per click and result page featured advertising revenue. The more people who search on Google, the more valuable the advertising becomes, but to maintain and grow this market dominance Google must consistently deliver a better end user search experience.
To achieve this, Google has introduced ever more sophisticate search algorithms, the complex sets of rules that precisely define the step-by-step sequence of an on line search. An algorithm is a sequential set of instructions that can reduce millions of sites on the world wide web to a few pages of coherent search results, of which the most relevant should be on the first page.
Google has launched several new search algorithms over the past couple of years, many with exotic names and all designed to improve the search experience. These include Penguin and Panda, which were designed to reduce the search rankling of websites that were judged to be of low quality, needlessly repetitive, or with little or no original content to help the searcher.
This month Google took another major step in its quest for the perfect search engine experience by launching Hummingbird, an algorithm which is claimed to have the power to ‘read’ the searcher’s mind and deliver the search result requested even if the user phrases the search term vaguely or in a roundabout way.
This sounds like a valuable breakthrough which will enhance the online search experience for the average searcher, but it is such a new and radical concept that it will take a while to work out how useful it really is. It is also a change that has greatly disturbed the SEO industry.
After Hummingbird, SEO may never be the same again.
Before 2010, Google’s algorithms were relatively unsophisticated and were based largely on keyword matching. Basically, the more often the searcher’s key words appeared on your website the higher its ranking in the search results.
The rising importance of keyword matching led the evolution of a whole new industry called Search Engine Optimisation or SEO, where experts with IT and on line design backgrounds who understood the mechanics of the algorithms ensured that your site was presented to better meet Google’s requirements.
Unfortunately, this in turn led to some highly dubious ‘black hat’ SEO practices, notable key word stuffing, where the aim was to pepper the online text with as many keywords as possible repeated as many times as possible, leading to long, dull and sometimes nonsensical or repetitious text on sites; and practices such as link swapping, which assumed that the number of external sites linked to yours reflected its quality, even f these sites were unrelated to you r business. As a result, I can recall receiving emails from dozens of unrelated sites offering to trade links with me, even when there was no credible connection between my business and theirs.
SEO expertise made it possible to manipulate search engine performance for the benefit of website owners rather than for the benefit of the searchers who were the internet’s end users. Understandably, therefore, enhancements such as Panda and Penguin were greeted with howls of distress from the SEO industry who cried foul on the basis that the new algorithms, introduced without industry consultation, penalising on line advertisers who were Google’s bread and butter. (It must be said that the great majority of SEO professionals are ‘white hats’ who attempt to meet Google’s criteria more effectively by legitimate means).
Does this mean the death of the keyword?
The new Hummingbird algorithm enables Google to parse the full search term (as opposed to analysing searches word-by-word), and to identify and rank results within this wider context. It delivers a ‘semantic search’ based on the meaning of the query rather than exactly matching the key words, thus becoming a search application that “thinks” for itself.
This sounds like it could mean the death of the keyword, but that isn’t so, because even though specific keywords are now a lot less important than they used to be, there are still two reasons why keywords will continue to matter.
The first is that even the new semantic searches have to start somewhere, and they will pick up the keywords which ought to be the words most commonly used by searchers to ask a question on a particular subject. At the same time, they will go beyond these to look at more roundabout ways of expressing the thought in the keyword. This means that in addition to the concise keywords in your on line text, you might also try to use a variations of words and expression that say the same thing in a different and sometimes less concise way.
The other issue is that anyone buying Google AdWords pay per click can only activate a campaign on a keyword. (How would it be, though, if Google applied Hummingbird to AdWords as well as web searches? You might get a lot more clicks on your website, but would they be they be as tightly targeted to your business as a precise keyword inquiry? It is an interesting thought).
How might Hummingbird affect your site’s performance?
It’s almost too early to say yet, but the important thing about Google algorithm changes like Hummingbird is the way they redefine a “good” site worthy of achieving a high search result ranking, ideally featuring in the first page of results.
Of course, as a freelance web content writer I can only applaud Google’s efforts to further elevate content quality as the primary indicator of website quality, while delivering a new web search tool that helps searchers find what they are looking for faster whether they type in the exact keyword or not. Apart from anything else, this should lead to livelier, chattier text that is less keyword constrained.
As a website owner, however, I am a little concerned about Hummingbird’s potential effect on my site’s search results. Obviously, Hummingbird’s ability to search for the answer to the question as whole rather than single keywords, and to better “understand” what information the searcher is looking for could land more people on my page. At the same time, one respected SEO professional* believes that because sites will be evaluated on criteria such as the breadth and depth of recent information sitting on them and the way it is delivered rather than keywords, the new algorithm will favour sites that incorporate text, video and FAQs on many levels to provide different layers of information.
If this is the case, most small business websites (including mine) , which are on line brochures for products and services that basically don’t change too much over time, may be disadvantaged, while sites that offer as wide range of products, demonstrations and instructions, such as a homemaker store or and on line pharmacy, might be advantaged – especially as these are mostly larger sites with full time online marketing managers who have the time and budgets to figure out the best way to deal with the new algorithm.
Two steps you might want to consider right away are to add an FAQ section to your site if you don’t already have one, since Google apparently considers FAQs to be very welcome to consumers, and to consider an onsite video or videos. A word of warning however, just putting any old video on your home page won’t cut it. An on site video does not have to be expensively produced – even a video PowerPoint presentation with a recorded voice over or a demonstration shot on a home video camera might do it for you – but it must be interesting and relevant to the site visitor or it could do more harm than good.
Finally, one thing you should be doing in any case is keeping an eye on the web traffic visitor statistics supplied by most competent hosting companies, By watching them over the next 3 or 4 months, you’ll soon find out if Hummingbird is humming around your site.
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*Geoff Ian Parker: http://www.blog.accommodationguru.com/2013/11/16/googles-hummingbird-update-is-more-significant-than-businesses-think