Those who know me, or know of me, know that I sometimes take a very different view from the majority. When other SEOs were happily tracking ‘hits’ and ranking positions as the sole measure of success, way back in the ’90s, I was never afraid to disagree and look at visits, conversions, sales, etc.
In hindsight, that doesn’t seem crazy or unusual at all. But trust me when I tell you that at the time mine was a pretty lonely voice in that regard. It’s why Ralph Tegtmeier (aka Fantomaster) said I was the first person he ever heard talk about Search Marketing, i.e. marketing via search, rather than just positioning.
Well, I’m just about to disagree with almost every post I’ve seen recently about Hummingbird, the new Google search buzzword. Even though I’ve stuck out my neck and disagreed with the herd many times before, and very successfully, I still feel a little nervous about doing so.
The common advice I’m seeing out there, in post after post, by people who generally know their stuff, and talk intelligently is that Hummingbird means you need to use more semantics in your pages and generally use the same techniques we’ve advised for years in regard to the ‘Long Tail of Search’.
According to all I have seen and understood of Google’s ‘Hummingbird’ update, this is not just a small misunderstanding, but a big misconception that sets readers headed further in the wrong direction entirely.
Considering that I’m arguing with other experts in their fields, several of whom, like Eric Ward (who wrote “How Will Google Hummingbird Impact Links? Here Are 6 Ways“), have as many years in this whole industry as myself, I need to make a clear, cogent argument for my case here. Please excuse me if it’s a little long.
Hummingbird – The Facts.
Danny Sullivan wrote a great Google Hummingbird FAQ that I think serves as an excellent piece on the basic facts of Hummingbird. You can also read Reuters coverage of the press release which has avoided adding too much speculation of its own.
Several of the news sites reporting the story noted specifically that Google was “short on specifics” and Tech Crunch wrote: “Despite a good amount of questioning from the audience on just how Hummingbird worked, Google avoiding getting too technical. While they did say that this was the biggest overhaul to their engine since the 2009 “Caffeine” overhaul (which focused on speed and integrating social network results into search) and that it affects “around 90% of searches”, there wasn’t much offered in terms of technical details”
As the BBC noted in its coverage, quoting Google: “Hummingbird is focused more on ranking information based on a more intelligent understanding of search requests, unlike its predecessor, Caffeine, which was targeted at better indexing of websites.”
Bear that last point in mind, and especially that the quote comes directly from Google at the time and directly in relation to what Hummingbird is about: “a more intelligent understanding of search requests“.
Also bear in mind that Hummingbird has been in effect for several months now, and according to Google affects 90% of searches. If it required any major shifts in your content you would have seen this long before now.
There is no major uproar about a massive update, no massive change to the visible search engine results that most people might try to track. I believe this is because Hummingbird affects 90% of searches, not search results. Hummingbird is all about better processing of the query, the search phrasing.
The Cause of Confusion
One of the main reasons many have been deeply confused about Hummingbird is that Google’s published news on the update that is most cited is a blog post by Amit Singhal and barely mentions it. The post gives more coverage to the Knowledge Graph, to Google Now, and to other applications that will make use of that better understanding of complex, or vaguely worded, queries.
It has lead to people equating Hummingbird with the Knowledge Graph, with Google+, and with all sorts of aspects of those other things mentioned. One such case being the coverage by The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/10350564/Google-Hummingbird-algorithm-to-elevate-niche-websites.html
Hummingbird does impact, significantly on things like the Knowledge Graph and Google Now. It impacts on everything Google do in response to any sort of query, because it changes how Google understands every query. Yes it is applying the use of synonyms and semantics, but it is applying it directly to the query.
Hummingbird is the Exact Opposite of Long Tail Search
SEOs used to have to worry about optimizing for ‘long-tail’ search terms. Long-tail search are the queries that are unusually worded, even completely unique. You used to need to write content that would include all of the synonyms that a long-tail search might have to have any chance of being in those results.
Hummingbird isn’t about long tail search. It’s entirely the opposite. Hummingbird is about taking long-tail, highly unusual and verbose searches, and serving them results as if they were clear short-phrase searches. It is applying semantics to the actual search query, and processing that, prior to actually running the results.
So, when I’m on a cellphone in Denver and ask Google “Where’s a good place where I can get a pizza?”, Google can take my location from the cellphone, understand that when I say ‘place’ in the context of the words ‘where’ and ‘get’ and ‘pizza’ that place is a synonym for ‘restaurant’, and can also include ‘diner’, ‘cafe’, and a dozen other words for places to get food, and effectively process the search as clearly as if I had searched for “good pizza restaurants in Denver”.
It would be lovely to assume that eventually it will understand the word ‘good’ is important and it should probably only include results with positive reviews, and it may even include all Italian restaurants (though that adds a risk of including ones that don’t offer pizza).
So, while some are advocating writing all your new content to exact-match more long-tail search, Google is doing the opposite. It is making the very concept of many long-tail searches go the same way as referral data. Google is trying to get away from exact wording to understanding the concepts. So no matter how verbose or roundabout your search for pizza restaurant in Denver may be, the search it runs is exactly the same as “Denver Pizza Restaurant”, “Pizza Restaurant Denver”, etc.
Google is applying the semantics and conceptualization to the search itself, the actual query, not to the pages.
That’s why despite this already being live for some time, and despite Google saying it impacts 90% of searches, there’s not been any huge shouting about changes to the SERPs, or massive loss of 90% of traffic, etc. In fact, with Google’s [not provided] shift away from even showing you the exact phrases, you can’t really detect the changes at all from the receiving end.