Fright of the Hummingbird

On September 26, 2013, Google Hummingbird was released into the wild. Google’s Amit Singhal, SVP of Search, called it the largest change in Google’s algorithm since 2001 and the update is said to have affected 90% of searches worldwide. These two statements have sent SEOs into collective tizzies. Interestingly, the update had been in effect for a month before it was announced and was hardly noticed by the SEO community in that time. Websessive Media didn’t notice. “Affected 90% of Search results”. What exactly does this mean? A Google update that affects search doesn’t necessarily affect what all SEOs concern themselves with: ranking and traffic. Personally, I noticed no great shifts in ranking or traffic and many SEOs are saying the same thing. So, what was changed?

What is Hummingbird and are we worried?

Penguin, which affected only 3% of Google search queries, turned SEO on its head, so it is understandable that the SEO community began having nightmares after the Hummingbird announcement was made. Panda and Penguin revolutionized the way people think and do SEO. Will Hummingbird do the same?

The answer to that question may be in understanding the intent of Hummingbird. The Hummingbird algorithm does not seem to be directed at ridding search results of crap. Where Panda and Penguin were the equivalent of a gardener pulling weeds to leave only a pristine lawn for people to admire, Hummingbird is a translator trying to figure out the search intent of the modern day Web searcher – the mobile user. At the current rate of mobile adoption worldwide, it is thought that mobile search will eclipse desktop search by 2015.

Because mobile search is important to people, it is important to Google. Mobile search is much different than desktop search in two important ways: it’s conversational and results must be immediate and relevant. On desktop, people use a type of search shorthand, quite naturally. Voice search on mobile is more conversational. People can formulate questions and be very specific about their needs. “McDonald’s near Main and 33rd avenue in Vancouver”, “Nike high tops on sale downtown Vancouver”. Are there still keywords? Yes.

All language includes keywords. Keywords are nothing more than  hints at the probable  subject of what we write, type, or speak, but there are also all kinds of other words and parts of speech in a conversation, which means Google has to find a different way to guess the intent of searchers.

In the keyword paradigm, results are tied to what are thought to be important words. In voice search, results are tied much more closely to meaning and intent. Google has to do more to understand what the searcher wants. It’s amazing to think about what this means. Spoken communication is complex and subtle. Hummingbird was called Hummingbird because the teeny flying namesake is precise and fast and that’s exactly what mobile search needs to be. People use mobile devices anywhere and on the go. They don’t have the time to sift through irrelevant results as we may on desktop searches. I won’t crash my car looking for the right result in Google search if relevant results are coughed up immediately.

Are keywords dead?

I’ve read a few articles about Hummingbird stating “Keywords are dead”. How can keywords be dead? They are a part of of communication. What is a keyword anyway? It’s a “key” “word”. An “important” word that hints at the subject of spoken and written language. They exist, always will and will always be important to understanding the meaning of any communication. You cannot speak or write without them. People will still do keyword style searches, even when on a mobile device using voice search, and people quite naturally will still use keywords in titles, headings and content.

Hummingbird was a massive refinement, but it didn’t dispense of the many ways Google discerns search intent. Hummingbird cannot mean “don’t use keywords”. We’ve known for many years now that keyword stuffing is bad and can definitely be taken too far, but for the love of Pete. Good luck writing content without keywords.

If I have an article about my new 30-day potato diet, it will most certainly have a title tag that includes those keywords; it will most certainly have a heading that includes “30-Day Potato Diet”; and the content will most certainly include the words “diet” and “potato” and “30 days” (sometimes even adjacently because I am so wicked). Why? BECAUSE IT’S ABOUT A 30-DAY POTATO DIET! What else am I going to call it? My “1 month ovoid-shaped tuber that grow abundantly in Idaho diet?”

Everyone take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay. Google is not going to remove every website or Web page from the Internet that uses keywords. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. If it did, the only thing left would be the Google search page and when you did a search nothing would be returned.

I’ve already noticed a few articles published by well-meaning SEOs saying would should all start writing in a conversational style. We should use questions and start publishing more FAQs.

So again, we chase our own tails, and again, we guess at ways to manipulate Google All Mighty. How about just writing and publishing without thinking about Google? (as difficult as that may seem). Well, that’s enough for one day…I have to go and ensure that my backlink profile “appears” natural, then I think I’ll create some Web content made of nothing but questions containing not one keyword. I may be awhile.

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