Thank you very much John for contributing this article.
The (Silent) Rise of Google Hummingbird
Google announced the latest change to its search algorithm, code named “Hummingbird”, at the end of September. There has been a lot of discussion and attention paid to this update but not for the usual reasons. Unlike previous Google updates such as Penguin & Panda which sparked a plethora of debate and discussion, the SEO community seemed somewhat taken aback when Matt Cutts announced at PubCon Las Vegas that Hummingbird had, in fact, been implemented over a month ago – quite simply, nobody noticed.
This is interesting because with previous major Google updates, SEO-savvy online communities would first notice and discuss (okay, probably complain about) the SERP positions of their clients’ websites, with the announcement of an algorithm change being confirmed by Google some time later. The fact that this sequence of events has reversed is significant – why did marketers not notice the impact of the latest changes, which according to Amit Singhal (senior vice president of search) affects over 90 percent of worldwide searches?
There are many factors contributing to this, but a few in particular that I feel are worth raising here.
Ninety Percent of Searches? Well, Possibly
To put things in perspective, while it wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the announcement I suspect “90 percent of searches worldwide” in this instance is referring to the sheer volume of search queries as opposed to the number of different unique queries. Extremely competitive terms such as “car insurance”, “credit cards” or “home loans” that drive massive amounts of traffic would account for a lot of this, and I would not be surprised if the number of unique search queries impacted is a fifth of the 90% figure, if not lower. Simply put: it’s possible that the more niche the market you’re trying to rank for, the less you’ve noticed anything.
Black Hat SEO Isn’t Shouting Anymore
This is somewhat cynical but it’s worth pointing out that it’s likely black hat SEO folk simply aren’t shouting as loudly as they used to, which is a large factor of how quickly people notice something is happening within the SEO sphere.
I remember certain users on SEO forums who boasted they “weren’t affected” by Google’s Panda updates, getting subsequently crushed under the webbed foot of Penguin 2.0. I haven’t heard from them since – I suspect that if they are still in the black hat business that they’re keeping a significantly lower profile.
That’s not to say these techniques aren’t still rife and (some) aren’t still effective – but if it wasn’t obvious enough before, now seems to be a time where the squeaky wheels are the ones being oiled. Questionable practices are becoming less well known, and are less effective overall – which is good given relevance is the name of Google’s game.
Why Doing Content Right Means Business As Usual (And That’s a Good Thing!)
Content marketing has previously been split quite clearly between writing content to solve a user’s query with a thoughtful keyword or two sprinkled in, and pretty blatant article spinning and keyword spam.
It’s worth remembering Google’s goal here of relevance, relevance, relevance. A spammy article with the phrase “best cocktail bar” repeated throughout could rank for the exact term (and in certain situations where spam/non-spam lines are slightly blurred, still do – but that’s another discussion), but may now find it harder to rank for conversational searches such as “what are the best cocktail bars in central London?” where a user is clearly still researching as opposed to about to choose a single place to go.
This hasn’t been given too much attention because traditionally businesses care the most about keywords more associated with DR – these potential customers are simply further down the purchase funnel. However, soon they will have to take serious note because Google is predicting a lot of users interacting with search in a far more conversational way. The rise in use of voice-to-text particularly on mobile devices suggests that they are likely to be right, at least in the near-term.
To summarise: content marketers who were watching their DR keywords but slotting them into content that was useful for their visitors to read, should see little to no impact post-Hummingbird and wonder what the big deal is. Those who focus only on keyword-rich content without regard to quality should find their traffic gradually tapering off as search becomes more conversational.
Flogging the Is-SEO-Dead (?) Horse
SEO is a constantly evolving animal. Any tired platitude of “SEO is dead” should really be read as “I’m sick of my job description changing”. In Google’s ideal world SEO (search engine optimisation!) is synonymous with natural content marketing producing relevant and high-quality content, combined with (more distinct post-Google-Caffeine) good and consistent exposure on social media.
The simple truth is that what could once have been three or four distinct jobs within the online marketing sphere are continuing to merge into one, and as a result the goals of SEO are (intentional or not) quickly becoming parallel rather than perpendicular to Google’s goal of ultimate relevance.
I leave you with this thought: two years ago, publishing this article a long time after the update was released and after countless articles were already published would have made things very difficult for this page to rank anywhere. With relevancy and updated news becoming the forefront of Google search, you will find the opposite continues to become truer due to higher weighting being given to fresher content. This is just one example of how the landscape is increasingly unrecognisable from an SEO veteran’s point of view.