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Google Hummingbird semantic search and content strategy

Why do customers visit your website?
I’m not asking what they are looking for. I’m asking why they are looking for it.
Behind the why, there’s a problem the customer will be trying to solve. There’s a purpose driving their need or want. The difference between what customers want and why they want it is at the heart of the new Hummingbird organic search algorithm unveiled by Google on its 15th anniversary last week.

Since the late 1990s, search engines have delivered ranked results by matching keywords typed in a search bar to keywords on webpages. Simple from a user’s perspective, devilishly clever in its mathematics and engineering.

But words can have different meanings.

Back in May 2012, Google’s Senior Vice President for engineering, Amit Singhal, gave the example of a search for “Taj Mahal”.
Was the search about the monument in India, the musician, or a local curry house? What was the intent behind the search? At that point, Google had already started to map alternative meanings by charting what other searches typically followed an initial query. The result is semantic search: an engine that attempts to understand how people are using language, the varied meanings of words or phrases and the different context in which those words are used.

Behind the engine is Google’s “knowledge graph”: its database of possible connections between what it calls “entities” – facts, figures, people, objects and things. Google says that nine out of 10 searches will be affected by the new algorithm. But it’ll take a while for Hummingbird’s full potential to be revealed; partly because the way people search is going to evolve too. “Where do I?” “What do I?” “How do I?” “What’s the difference between?” These kind of search queries will be nectar to the Hummingbird in future.
Evolution from Panda to Hummingbird

Look back over the last two years and Google has been on a consistent path. The Panda algorithm update penalised “thin” content: webpages stuffed with keywords but little else of value to the user. Last week, Google revealed that it would no longer provide webmasters with data about which keywords drive traffic from search results to their websites: the move to 100% (not provided). The message has been clear. Success in search is more than a matter of keywords. Indeed, this summer, Google was explicit in its advice to webmasters about how to rank well in search results:

“In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by creating high-quality sites that users will want to use and share.”

The key to ranking success is engaging on-site content. The essential ingredient that Hummingbird adds is relevance. If the Googlebot is now trying to understand search intent and the meaning and context of words, relevance is all.

Hummingbird and content strategy

“How about a clip of you twerking, boss? We got a heap of likes when the office did the Harlem Shake. Not as many as when we all did Gangnam Style. But if you twerk it, it’ll go viral.

Take a pop culture trend. Take it out of context. Film it. Share it. Sit back and wait for the social likes. Some call it trendjacking. Others that it’s just hopping on the proverbial band wagon. Sometimes it works. More often it’s lame. But it’s not a content strategy. It’s also unlikely to help your search rankings in the era of a Googlebot that is interested in user intent.

Sure, good content can surprise and delight, even shock. But it can also educate and persuade. Good content can address problems and answer questions… and I’m not talking about an FAQ page.

  1. Go to the beginning of the sales funnel and think about why customers want or need your product or service in the first place. If you don’t already know, you could consider using a tool like Qualaroo. For example, are you selling a personal loan? What do you have to say about managing household finances? Selling a holiday? What do you have to say about getting to the destination, local customs and language as well as the must-see places, best eateries, galleries or beaches?
  2. Do you have an on-site search tool? If so, take a look at the data for what people are searching for when they’ve reached your site but can’t immediately find. There will be nuggets of insight into user intent and needs.
  3. Think beyond on-site blogs. Good content can take any form, whether a short video clip, graphic, ebook or whitepaper. It doesn’t just have to be the written word. The form should fit the content.
  4. Think about language. Hummingbird is geared, in part, to mobile and voice search. So be clear in the words you use and how you structure sentences. Consider synonyms – the alternative words or phrases that describe what you do and that people might use rather than an exact match keyword.
  5. Embed social. Make it easy for people to share your content. You want customers to become your advocates, so make it easy to do.
  6. Brand. One of the tenets of marketing: you need a clearly defined brand. Don’t leave customers guessing who you are and what you do.
  7. Don’t be dull. Informative content does not have to be dry.

Finally, good content is not noise that gets in the way of a sale. Good content complements the sales effort. To do that, the content has to be relevant to the product/service. That’s not just what your customers want. It’s what the Hummingbird wants too.


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  • Lee Carnihan / 9 years ago

    A great article Paul! Very succinct and useful indeed. One question though: how will my paid search be affected by Google push towards 100% (not provided)? Will I still be able to see the keywords people used through my paid search campaign?

  • Rob Welsby / 9 years ago

    Hi Lee! Google are still providing all individual keyword data if you're paying for that traffic through it's AdWords PPC platform. It somewhat makes a mockery of the concept that this change is due to Google wanting to provide more privacy for users..

  • sehrish / 5 years ago

    very informative post. I will use the suggestions discussing here for optimizing my new blog site.This post will be very helpful for the begaineer SEO worker who are new in this field.
    Keep posting this type of helpful post.
    With best wishes.


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