Google’s new Hummingbird search engine algorithm is sending shock waves throughout the digital marketing arena. What it means, and how marketers need to adjust their SEO thinking will be on the to-do list for the foreseeable future.

When Google released its latest changes this fall, it used a very clever strategy that took almost everyone involved in SEO by surprise. First, it ran the new algorithm for 30 days before telling anyone. No big announcement, no public launch, just a quiet change. Then it held a press conference to discuss what was quickly recognized as its most significant revision in more than a dozen years. And with a full 30 days’ worth of data under its belt, Google was able to say that the world had not ended by its revision. Not only did the industry feel no seismic disruptions, but by most accounts no one had even noticed.

Hummingbird is a massive change in the way in which the Google search engine returns search results, and it has major implications for the way that companies and organizations need to approach SEO.

First, a little search engine background. Search has always been a game of cat-and-mouse. The marketer’s goal is to use links, key words, and other tactics to ensure that their website comes up high during relevant searches. Google’s interest is in having the most relevant results that don’t favor a site just because it has tricked the search engine. So, for example, when inbound links were weighed heavily, tacticians could create “link farms” that gave the impression of links that weren’t real. When Google altered the algorithm to degrade unimportant links, new tricks were developed that included keyword stuffing, or the heavy use of searched terms throughout the site. Google responded by setting parameters on how many words could be used in a given paragraph. The back-and-forth continued.

Hummingbird marks a steep departure from this word-based game. It focuses on context and what are known as “long-tail” queries to deliver results that are more specific to the needs of an evolving Internet where mobile devices and voice commands are replacing simple word searches. Hummingbird is supposed to reflect that context when, to use an obvious example, we search for Chinese restaurants. What earlier search engines would deliver was a list of restaurants. But what we really want to learn is a good place to eat that is nearby. The intent of Hummingbird is to understand that context and deliver recommendations of good restaurants in our area. Remember that what is a “good” place to eat is a subjective notion and will become very important in how marketers will need to structure their SEO strategy going forward.

That context gets more difficult as people speak their questions rather than type. So for example, while a typed query might read, “nearby Chinese restaurant,” a spoken query might say “What’s the best place to get Chinese near my home.” Google needs to recognize the actual location of your home, understand that ‘place’ means you want a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and get that “Chinese” is a particular type of restaurant. Knowing all these meanings may help Google go beyond just finding pages with matching words.

Google has reoriented its search algorithm in three very important ways in Hummingbird, and two of those changes have to do with what it determines is “good.”

The first is that Google now rewards good content. That means that long, detailed and well-sourced articles are going to get better results than mere word mentions on a page. Do a search on “slavery” and you will find long articles from The New York Times as well as The Smithsonian magazine. Search for “best rain jackets” and you will get reviews from publications and “How to choose” articles from within the REI site, instead of links directly to items for sale.

The second is that Google is putting links to what it considers to be good content directly on the results page, and is including related articles and other information that it didn’t previously deliver. From a consumer’s point of view, this turns the search results page into a sort of encyclopedia with snippets of content pulled from others’ sites. From a marketers perspective, it could mean that viewers will see information from your site, but not need to click onto your site to get it. Skeptics have theorized that Google is actually trying to keep you on their page as long as possible in order to run more ads and realize more revenues. Whatever the motive, getting someone to leave the search page for your website is more challenging.

The third is that social media, and in particular Google+, will become a larger part of the search engine equation. Google’s goal is to tap into your network of friends to give you additional insight on your query. Go back to the question about a good nearby Chinese restaurant. If Google sees that friends within your Google+ circles like a particular restaurant, that might be included in the search results.

This is a lot to think about, and requires a different mindset when executing your SEO strategy. If this is starting to make your head spin, join the club. Much of what has been written about Hummingbird so far is difficult for anyone not steeped in algorithm technology to understand. So with that in mind…

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