Google announced this week the launch of a new algorithm. There have been a few commentaries on it recently but we believe that despite the limited noticeable impact it has had on the results pages, we believe this is the start of a very significant development in regards to content indexing.

Google announced Hummingbird’s update in the Menlo Park garage where Google started out (after being booted off campus at Stanford University for using too many servers!). The garage was fitting location as that was where the servers were kept.

Hummingbird is the biggest iteration of the algorithm since Caffeine in 2010, however it is going to have less impact immediately on search marketing than the Panda and Penguin updates. Amit Singhal, of Google, said 90% of searches have been affected by this algorithm change however it was interested that very little was said within the industry about affected rankings before the announcement was made.

The details of the Hummingbird amendments have been made below, detailing what has changed and how this impacts on search marketing strategies.

However in general terms this amendment is a step towards the Google algorithm becoming artificially intelligent. Google’s goal is to be able to serve content based on what the searcher wants. A KPI of this development is surely the number of searches a user makes in a short space of time (the higher number of searches denoting that the content is not relevant to their query) and also the number of pages a user visits per search term. For example, 8 years ago 30% of searchers would look at search results past page one of Google. Today it is only 10% and it is likely to decrease as Google improves the indexing of searches against the real intent of the search (plus making it even more significant to increase SEO rankings).

So let’s have a look at Hummingbird in detail, what are the changes and what does this mean for search marketers and website owners.

Semantic Search

So semantic search will be discussed more and more in regards to SEO over the coming years, particularly as search devices change, search queries therefore evolve with the technology, and Google and information retrieval technology adapts with this technology.

Semantic search is where an algorithm, like Google’s, retrieves information based on the meaning of the search as opposed to the matching of the content against the search term. Google’s aim is to index all content based on semantics and will continue to improve this.

So, before Hummingbird Google were indexing content by using pattern match to marry up content within it’s database against the search query.

Today, Hummingbird is more intelligent, and now indexes content based on the query intention. This includes some key elements such as the context of the search and the searcher’s requirements. For example, the context of the searcher can include variables such as the device a user is searching from, the time of the search made (locally) and/or the frequency of similar searches from the same device where Google will understand more about the search habits of a user within their context.  From a better understanding Google can make a better judgement on the search intent and improve the content served in the index.

Website Content

As Google continue to improve their algorithm around semantic search, websites need to continue improving content for end users.

Providing the best content for basic brochure websites may be the hardest hit sites as a large majority are relying just on textual content.

Gone are the days where SEOs focus on keyword density and target keywords within alt tags, meta tags and H tags. More granular research is need into multiple keyword variations, although this recommendation isn’t as a result of the Hummingbird update.

Webpage content breaks down into only three core sections – images, text and video and a combination of all three determine the theme of the page. It is important the companies, SEO practitioners and in-house marketing teams see that each page has it’s own theme of which all content types contribute to improving.

For example, if I have a page about “Mailing bags” then I want to give as many signals to Google as possible that this page is highly targeted for all relevant search terms. Therefore from a contextual point of view I want to ensure it is optimised for all search variations for this product including mailing bags, mailing cartons and mailing pouches. I also want to make sure the text content covers important practical information for example the uses of the product and application. This is particularly important with the Hummingbird update because Google is specifically looking at how it can serve content better for practical searches beginning with things such as “how do I…” or “what is the…”. More information on this below.

Secondly I want to ensure that I have relevant images on the page, for example maps. 20% of all searches have “local intent” in the UK, and it’s even higher on mobile. So maps are a significantly important element to put on websites.

Another important significant to help serving content against intent is schema markup, on videos inparticular.

All of these elements contribute as signals to Google to say “Hey, this page is very relevant to that search term”.

Material searches and Application searches

This is a point we have been working on with clients for a while and we are not surprised that Hummingbird has covered it in this update.

We have worked with clients to optimise their websites which contain multiple bespoke products and have seen that there are clearly two types of searches being made. Material searches are searches for a certain product based on what it is – so for example, a search of “cardboard boxes” is a material search, the searcher is clearly describing the product that they are looking for in the search term. Similarly, a search for “coffee table” is someone looking for a very specific item.

Now, application searches are queries made by users who are looking for something to do a required job but they are not sure exactly what they are looking for. For example, “packaging material for moving house” is someone with the intent of finding packaging solutions to fit their house moving requirements but not sure exactly what they need. They are, in effect, asking Google to tell them the answer. This is where Hummingbird is improving its semantic understanding of search queries to improve the indexing of the content for each user. Google may look at things like past search history, which device is it from, and even things like personalised search with “Search Plus Your World” which is another change similar to Hummingbird that also contributes to better indexing of content based on a user’s requirement.

So in short, think about searches that are more to do with the usability and performance of your products and services (application), rather than searches that just describe what you do (material).

Knowledge Graph tap in

Google is also rankings sites based on information in a company’s Knowledge Graph. This is probably more relevant to larger companies or brands, however do not underestimating the significance of local search and Knowledge Graph is likely to have impact on rankings here.

Use of Mobiles

More and more people are speaking searches into mobile phones which is where Hummingbird determines the meaning of a search. These spoken searches are invariably longer search phrases and mainly contain a question. Google’s search results need to be able to answer these questions so the focus for Hummingbird is understanding the semantics of the search term, be it by location, device and search intent of the text query to serve the most relevant results.

Use of local searches on mobile devices

40% of searches made on mobile have local intent, i.e. to do something or retrieve information locally. Therefore think about the content on your website and how it appears on mobile – does it format correctly? Is it easy to use? When I say this, I do not mean is it responsive and built in HTML5 as that is only a temporary solution. Consumers on mobile are in a different buying state so content on your desktop website may not be relevant to a consumer on a mobile device. For example, your store locator links are going to be significantly important to mobile visitors but if your store locators links are buried in the footer of your desktop site and they are just regurgitated the same way through responsive design, then this isn’t good practice.

Google will be making changes in the coming year to give increased weighting to mobile optimised content – effectively Hummingbird is the first change here, and Google want to see content created to best service a users “intent”. This includes the device they are searching from.

Long and short tail Keywords

We are going to see Hummingbird have a bigger effect on long tail search terms and not on head terms. It will have a greater impact on longer string search terms where this is a question or element of uncertainty within the searchers mind. Head terms and generics may be effected within certain industries however greater variations will be seen on longer terms.

This is because of conversational search.

Conversational search

Use of voice search creates longer search query strings and it is important to serve content to match these searches. Think about user guides and how to guides if you have products with multiple applications.

Ikea are a great example of a website that had good video content showing how to put together each furniture type. This is great content to index for conversational search.

Some people recommend making text content more conversational, however we do not see this making a difference in regards to ranking effectiveness.

In Summary

Make sure your content is geared towards a user’s intent. Think not only about what they are search for but what are they looking to achieve based on contingent factors such as location, search device and time of search. Match your content and increase semantic signals for better indexing.

This is the start of some significant charges in content being indexed. Google will become better at determining user intent and semantic understanding, and with the change in consumer habits across multiple channels, particularly mobile, search marketers need to be adept to change.