Each time Google releases a new animal from its zoo, some SEOs take the change in stride and others panic, fearing the worst. It happened with Panda and Penguin, and (not unexpectedly) it happened again in late September when the Google Hummingbird update was released. Considering how shy Google has been about Hummingbird, SEOs’ overreactions and anxieties make a lot of sense. Google never mentions the update in its official documents and prefers not to give away details of the algorithm. With so little to go off of, it’s no wonder we’re often left anxious and confused, digging for all those undisclosed details.
To help clear up some of the confusion, let’s take a calm and rational look at the Google Hummingbird update, separating fact from fiction and hopefully laying some of your fears to rest.
A month has passed since the update arrived and the dust is beginning to settle. Although many people became caught up in the initial hoopla accompanying Hummingbird’s arrival, now that the excitement has faded, we can sort out the misconceptions from the truths.
So what’s changed?
As we mentioned in our original post about the update, when Hummingbird was announced, Google emphasized that it would be a dramatic change for the algorithm. This is true, but it’s important to note that the change is only an evolution of the search process (not a revolution, as some SEOs feared). More and more people are using long-tail and conversational queries and the Google Hummingbird update responds to this change, using language recognition to improve the search engine’s ability to understand users’ intent. It’s the beginning of the Semantic Web.
Synonyms vs. Semantics
Although Google has been taking synonyms into account since 2002 to improve search results, they’ve realized that using a thesaurus isn’t always effective. It improves the accuracy of search results, but it doesn’t allow the search engine to truly understand queries. To fix this, Google created Hummingbird. So while synonyms are still very important, they’ve been overshadowed by semantic search. The algorithm now takes relationships between search entities into play and uses those to pull out the query’s meaning. This will improve both search results and the ads that appear on those pages.
Changes in Traffic and Rankings
Although it was claimed that 90% of searches would be affected by the Google Hummingbird update, most SEOs have reported very little change in their traffic and rankings. This may seem strange, but remember that Hummingbird targets conversational queries, not the keyword queries that SEOs tend to track. More importantly, it affects searches, not search results. The sites most affected were ones that relied purely on long-tail keywords and also had little (or no) authority.
What to Do
Going forward with Hummingbird, it is important that we continue to create quality content (content that will be shared and linked) that is contextually understandable by Google. Structured data is helpful and so are external links on authoritative websites, but don’t think that websites like Schema.org will magically improve your rankings. Furthermore, there is not a clear relationship between Hummingbird and Knowledge Graph, as many suspected, and Hummingbird is not based solely on the Knowledge Base, as others surmised. However, it does seem to be somewhat connected to 100% (not provided), which was introduced at around the same time.
If you’re still concerned about the changes brought on by the Google Hummingbird update, I would recommend the following actions: write for a specific audience, use a clear information architecture, create a semantic content model, focus on building a low quantity of super high authority links with relevant content, and work on gaining referral traffic and brand visibility.
Basically, the rules haven’t changed much. All the ranking factors you know and love are still important, and sites that are authoritative and relevant to a query will still rank well. Quality content and relevant, authoritative links are still essential to your SEO efforts.
Hummingbird, like all of Google’s updates, created a splash when it arrived in September, but the water’s calmed and the horizon’s clear.
Great SEO is still great SEO. It’s as simple as that.