From Caffeine to Hummingbird: The Future of SEO


Whether it’s a child continuously asking “why” — or as we mature and begin looking at the who, where, what and how — our natural instinct is to ask questions. True, these questions typically contain keywords which are tied to the answer we are looking for, but until now the focus has never been on that answer, rather it has been based on similarities between the term typed in a search bar and the verbiage on a Web page.

Google has recognized the need for a change in the convention in which it measures, evaluates, ranks and returns results. Hummingbird is Google’s first attempt in aligning search results with how people actually speak and discover in everyday, natural language. And it’s equal parts genius and common sense.

Question Asked, Google (Wants To) Answer

Think about it. When you’re in the physical world, you ask questions and use descriptive language when conversing about a topic. These descriptors, though perhaps not keywords by themselves, play a huge role in providing context. Google understands that typical speech and language hinders meaningful results under simple Latent Semantic Indexing.

For instance, if I turn to a colleague and ask: “Who won the World Series?” It’s understood given the context, season, etc., that I’m asking for the final outcome of the World Series played by the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals baseball teams that took place on October 20, 2013. Assuming he follows baseball, he would simply answer that the Red Sox won. However, in a search engine, all words will be evaluated and incorporated into the results for relevancy. Additionally, “World Series” doesn’t necessarily have context because it could be unclear as to what year I’m referring to. With Hummingbird, and where it’s going, the context of the question is taken into account and results will be more intelligently provided.

To put it another way, it’s Google’s attempt at offering a diagnosis (diverticulitis) in context of the symptoms (stomach pain, fever, bloating, etc.). This is drastically more helpful than returning all possible matches to each of the various symptoms, which may mean completely different things if indexed individually.

Jumping to the Wrong Conclusions

There are some concerns I would point out however. Since the trend is moving toward Google making intelligent assumptions about what the searcher is looking for, products/services/content that pertain to more complex topics run the risk of losing some SEO visibility. To put this into perspective let’s look at a query such as, “How do I increase my visibility in Google?” This would be an easy example of where a natural language search could take a question and relatively instinctively make a connection to the answer being “SEO” or Web content such as “Increasing your search engine rank through content relevancy.”

However, problems arise when the “answer” isn’t currently ingrained in our everyday conversation. Something like “How do I diversify my risk in a volatile marketplace?” or, “What are the most effective marketing tactics for reaching users across multiple connected devices?” Until Google effectively “matches” the terms “marketing” and “connected devices” to the idea of variable channel media and technologically agnostic advertising, content creators will need to understand relevancy in terms of both question and answer or symptom and diagnosis.

Hummingbird: Potent, Energetic, Vigorous and Skillful

It’s no question Hummingbird is a step in the right direction. It opens up the way in which content can be developed to create a conversation with audiences, not only through potentially relevant keywords, but more importantly, through offering audiences and customers a more valuable and meaningful experience within the search engine.

It’s inevitable that Google gets some flack from theorists who believe Hummingbird is all part of a plan to depress rank and drive more investment into AdWords, even if this proves true to a certain extent, the net outcome over time will be quicker, more accurate, powerful and relevant results. This is not something we, as users, can argue with. At the very least, Hummingbird gives marketers a more compelling argument for clients to invest in content — something that seems to always be on the chopping block when budgets are cut or priorities are being established at the conference table.

Opportunities for Search

As Google expands its natural language capabilities, the focus on specific keywords is losing prominence. So, as marketers, how do we structure the content-feeder? By focusing content on topic-based concepts expressed via keywords and their associated conversationally related contextual language, instead of traditional keyword-matching strategies. This will allow us to take greater advantage of the evolving Knowledge Graph as content is continuously cross-indexed with the billions of other pages on the Web.

For marketers, this is exciting stuff. It allows us to pack more sugar in our strategies. The “science” of the SEO Periodic Table still holds true, as do the more philosophical Thematic Cluster Ranking Factors. But, it’s now more than that. Hummingbird is now intelligent, it’s conversational, and it reasons and can make educated assumptions based on how we speak, type, ask questions and discover. Some say it can even read your mind. What does all this really mean? Well (until Google releases another update to the algorithm), it means marketers, brands, and content creators must:

  • Think of keyword strategies more holistically: There will be no silver bullet word or term, so creating a connection between content (as the answer) and search terms (as the questions) will become ever more important.
  • Connect the dots: Hummingbird can/will learn, so content must be used to facilitate development of the search intelligence. Content placements (both on and off page) should tie context and connotation together, training Hummingbird to more closely correlate content in ways that are meaningful to your brand.
  • Eliminate performance anxiety: Historically, site owners have been hesitant to invest in site speed and performance because positive search results weren’t necessarily directly related. Hummingbird makes this more of a priority as it can quickly evaluate multiple sites and allow for greater site “pollination” if the underlying technology is at peak performance.
  • It’s no longer “just” semantics: Hummingbird cares that your content communicates relevance and now gives you the ability to stand out in some way that holds meaning to your potential audience. “Competitive” and “me-too” content value pales in comparison to content viewed as holding some authority, even in a niche segment.
  • A picture (or video) is truly worth 1000 words: Google understands content comes in many forms, and the integration of image and video results to regular searches shows how important they really are. Take advantage of alternate content channels to cross-pollinate and diversify search opportunities.

Attracting with Sugar

Well, now we have a Hummingbird all hopped up on Caffeine, so give it a reason to slow down. And don’t think of your content as a single feeder because all your different communications are unique opportunities to serve as stopping points for Google’s Hummingbird. Google’s done a great thing in throwing out a larger net and allowing us more opportunities to provide search relevance. But, you have to give it something sweet to stop at: As the old saying goes, “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

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