Penguins, Pandas, and... Hummingbirds?
Google's been rolling out its new Hummingbird algorithm updates since September, and we're hitting a point where we actually get to see what the larger effects are going to be, and which (if any) of the industry-ending, doomsday prophecies are true!
Amit Singhal, Senior VP and software engineer at Google, announced Hummingbird as the largest SEO algorithm update in years. And what was the primary focus of such a huge change? To better serve the search engine queries coming from new demographics and methods of web use. While Google has always been the reigning champ of keyword search results and accurate ranking of relevance, there has been a huge rise in what are known as 'long tail queries'. They include specificity and language rules that could be incredibly helpful in further refining searches, but has remained largely untapped, until now. And, as a side bonus, most of the queries seem to be coming from the web's favorite source of debate, debacle, and general dead horse, the mobile web. When so many people live out their digital lives mostly on one convenient device, social media, texting, email, and even Google begin to blur into similar media in how we interact with them.
First, let's start with an example of a short tail keyword vs a long tail keyword. Short tail would be popping open Google and searching for 'cat'. Do you want to adopt a cat? See pictures of a cat? Buy a cat a cheeseburger? The competition (and consequently costs) of all those specific uses for 'cat' are competing under that one word, hoping that they are what you meant. On the other hand, 'shedding long hair brush cat' is a long tail query that places the keyword, 'cat', as the tail of a specific set of descriptors. These searches are still far from as common as extremely simply, one to two word searches, but they represent users who already know in great detail what they want. Whether you're selling products or offering informational resources, this means your user can find exactly what they're looking for without being sent to your home page and left to wade the rest of the way for themselves. If a patient wants to find a specific doctor or branch of a medical practice, nearly any query involving the clinic name will often turn up the homepage in paid results and top organic results before the sub page that pertains to their topic.
Get Out Your Sandwich Boards
Part of any major Google rollout is the accompanying prophecies of the end of [insert industry here] as we know it. Due to the swift and brutal retribution seen in prior Google updates against black hat SEO practices, there's always a pervasive paranoia in the industry about what a new set of hidden rules could do to any poor soul that unintentionally ran afoul of them. Looking at the numbers, though, shows that very few people who weren't explicitly engaged in shady businesses like artificial link farming or the like are ever penalized by a change in the rules. Especially since the huge changes that began in 2010 with Caffeine, Google's goal has not been change the rules on the drop of a hat to keep us all in suspense. They've set themselves a goal of efficiency and understandability for their end users, and are simply refining the back end processes that get everyone there. While it's not impossible, there is very little chance that Google will ever scrap their hard earned research and change the fundamentals of how their engine works.
Ultimately, as Google has said themselves, as long as you've been keeping your nose clean, you've got nothing to worry about. As a matter of fact, due to the increased importance of locality and user intent in this long tailed update, many smaller businesses and sites that focus on the local scene over national presence will actually benefit greatly without having to drastically overhaul an already well made site!
As the SEO industry familiarizes itself with the details of Hummingbird piece by piece, there are certainly best practice tweaks that will emerge to get a competitive edge, and the usual crop of questionable and often ineffective schemes for quicker results. Play hard and play clean folks. Part of the fun and challenge of a good SEO project is knowing that you are never 'done'. You can win a round, even establish a winning strategy for the long term, but the ball is always in your court to keep watching and keep abreast of the next fuzzy little creature Google releases into the wilds!