Everyone seems to know that quality content is the foundation of a strong organic online presence, but everyone can't always agree on is what “quality content” actually means.
The mystery is understandable, considering that the search landscape is in the midst of tremendous change and volatility. So what does it mean to produce quality content? More and more, it means creating content that answers specific questions your users have.
In the last three years, there have been 45 Google Search algorithm updates, all of which have enhanced the search engine’s ability to properly evaluate the user’s search query and provide the most relevant search results possible. As Google gets better at understanding the user’s motivation and the context of their query, the more important it becomes for you to create content that anticipates what your target customers are looking for, what questions they have, and why they're searching for them.
This is a far cry from the SEO content strategy you may have been using as recently as a couple of years ago. Back then -- even after the Panda Update first hit -- you would build a long list of keywords and you would optimize specific pages around a specific keyword by using the word or phrase in the title tag, meta keywords, meta description, the H1 header, and a few times in the body text for good measure. And more often than not, that was considered enough work to make “quality content” for SEO purposes.
But that is no longer the case. Now, you need a content-centric SEO strategy that is optimized around customer interest and based on their behavior, rather than their keywords alone.
Understanding Google's Hummingbird Algorithm
To understand where Content-Centric Search is going, all you need to do is look at the development of Google Hummingbird.
Google Hummingbird, the latest version of Google’s search engine algorithm, was introduced in late August 2013. Hummingbird was created to better understand natural search queries by factoring in the context of the search. Hummingbird is based on semantic queries, making it important to understand not only the words of the search but phrases and concepts most notably related to the user’s location, interests, web activity, and query.
Google’s Hummingbird algorithm looks at the meaning behind a query, rather than delivering search results based purely on matching a few key terms. If the meaning of your content doesn’t match the spirit of what the user is looking for, Google is going to have a hard time finding it.
For example, if you search “Taj” and you are located in Agoura Hills, California (where our home office is based), Google will assume that you are more likely looking for directions to a local Indian restaurant or for general academic knowledge of the legendary structure than for directions to the Taj Mahal in India. As a result, the SERPs deliver geo-targeted results for restaurants and hotels in the surrounding area.
However, if you search “Taj” and you are located in New Jersey, Google will assume you are looking for the Trump Taj Mahal Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. As a result, the SERPs deliver a number of results related to the hotel and casino as well as a Knowledge Graph profile of the Trump Taj Mahal.
As you can see, Hummingbird has made search much more contextual and personalized. That being said, what can you as a marketer do to make sure your content is getting found in this new environment?
Here are some of the best ways to make your content Hummingbird-friendly.
How to Create Hummingbird-Friendly Content
1) Get to know your buyer persona.
As I mentioned earlier, quality content is now about optimizing for your customers, not your keywords. That’s why getting to know your customers and their buying cycles is the best way to create Hummingbird-friendly content that is going to rank and get found in 2014 and beyond. You should talk to your customers, pay close attention to what gets them to convert, and understand why they’re considering your business in the first place. Find out their most common questions or concerns and what objections you need to overcome in order to win their business. Define the various buying stages your customers have and when and how they move through the sales process.
Then, create customer personas that incorporate all this information, so you can create content that speaks to specific personas and buying stages. For instance, your homepage content is going to speak to a broader, less qualified audience, thus your content should highlight your primary value proposition.
On the other hand, a product or services page is farther down the funnel, and if a customer has gotten this far into the sales process they are probably better qualified, thus your content should anticipate objections such as pricing and performance.
Meanwhile, your blog readers are not necessarily in consumer mode, they may be looking for general information. Therefore, your blog should engage and inform rather than overtly sell.
By better optimizing your content for the customer experience, you are more likely to build the kind of content that Google is going value and rank. Google wants you to create content that answers questions instead of stuffing keywords. So the more you anticipate these questions and find answers to them, the better your content is going to rank.
2) Focus on quality rather than quantity.
For a long time, effective content was tied to frequency. But that’s no longer the case. Given the oversaturation of SEO, there’s entirely too much mediocre content out there as it is. What’s sorely lacking is truly quality content that illustrates an impressive breadth of expertise of a niche topic or industry. It is this type of content -- which answers important questions that users may have -- that is considered “evergreen” and is most valuable.
My advice is to focus on creating several in-depth pieces of content per month and focus on the promotion of that content, rather than churning out scores of low-level content. It’s much more important to create quality content that speaks to a customer’s specific circumstance -- in-depth directions to the store, a comprehensive analysis of your service methodology, or instructions on how to use a product line.
Granted, some pieces of content (especially for a blog) are much more salient when they’re timely and trending. But that has more to do with “when” something is published rather than “how much.”
3) Create content that goes beyond articles and blog posts.
When we talk about creating content, we’re not just taking about 500-word articles with a photo at the top. There are many ways to create engaging content that is both interactive and informative. Google recognizes this reality -- and search is now delivering blended and multimedia results that include videos, images, product listings, reviews, locations and photos.
So the more you can diversify your brand with different digital media assets, the more likely you are to curry favor with the search engines and the searchers.
For example, if you have a local brick-and-mortar business, you could create a nice introductory video and embed it on your website and include it on your Google+ page. Also, you can include photos of your storefront on your Google+ business page to give your brand a stronger presence online.
Or if you are looking to maintain an active blog, include slideshows, infographics, pictographs, reviews, quizzes, and surveys on your site. All of these are far more interactive and require more engagement from a user than merely reading a blog post, commenting in the forum section, and sharing content on Facebook and Twitter.
This is not to say that blog posts are not incredibly valuable -- despite what people may say, the internet is still predominantly a text-first media environment, people read more than they do anything else. But you should still find ways to incorporate various media assets as a way to appeal to users and search engines.
4) Last but not least, don’t forget the SEO basics.
This article has reinforced the idea that you should optimize content for customers and not keywords. That’s absolutely the best approach, in my opinion. But content-centric SEO still includes SEO. That means you should create your content for customers. But once you’ve done that, you should incorporate keywords and optimize the content for the search engines without stuffing keywords and tarnishing the overall content quality.
In other words, keyword research should still play a huge role in your content strategy. In fact, you should use keyword research for what it was always intended: data-driven market research. If you perform effective keyword research at the outset of your campaign, you will have a much better understanding of what your customers are searching for and what their online activity patterns are. The better you understand the phrases they’re using to search for the products and services you sell, the better you will be able to provide them with quality content that informs and engages them.
There is no magic bullet when it comes to creating quality content. If we study the effects of Hummingbird and learn the right lessons, we can see what Google is attempting to do with each new change to the search algorithm: to make the search experience more accurately reflect how users are engaging with brands and peers online.
Originally published Jul 10, 2014 8:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017