Global search pro­fes­sion­als have been scram­bling to respond to Google’s Hum­ming­bird algo­rithm since its release in August last year. (We were told of the change a month later while many were still won­der­ing what went “wrong.”) While your site rank­ing may not have been dec­i­mated by the Hum­ming­bird release, your tag man­age­ment and other SEO prac­tices have had to adapt to be more rel­e­vant to SERPs. Google Voice, Google Glass, and mobile and smart­phone searches are the com­mon exam­ples of the demand for seman­tic search that will drive rank­ing toward more nat­ural language-based SEO.

Seman­tic search is slowly edg­ing in on pro­gram­matic search, where key­words directly con­nected organic results to rel­e­vant pages. But, my friends, Hum­ming­bird now infers mean­ing from con­text, so SEO pro­fes­sion­als must broadly exam­ine and deploy qual­i­fiers to gain trac­tion. Rank­ing fac­tors such as page-level key­words, inter­nal links, H1 tags, and oth­ers remain impor­tant. And don’t let your load speed lag min­i­mize redi­rects, and use 301 not 302 when they’re nec­es­sary. The tra­di­tional fac­tors are still highly rel­e­vant; how­ever, Hum­ming­bird has moved global SEO to match lan­guage more deeply.

Qual­i­fiers have become more impor­tant as Hum­ming­bird focuses atten­tion on two pri­mary fac­tors: 1. con­cepts over key­words and 2. the rela­tion­ships between con­cepts.  Qual­i­fy­ing terms are now more promi­nent with the Hum­ming­bird algo­rithm change so SEO man­agers must pay par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to how related terms are gen­er­ated from core terms. Although “light­weight back­packs” may no longer be as use­ful to an out­door enthu­si­ast site as before; “how to reduce hik­ing fatigue,” on the other hand, can boost SEO in a post-Hummingbird world.

That said, key­words and qual­i­fiers should still be promi­nent in on-page ele­ments such as

  • page title, meta tags, and meta description
  • H1, H2, and H3 tags
  • Key­words through­out content
  • URL nam­ing conventions

and on off-page ele­ments including

  • inter­nal links
  • Exter­nal links
  • social media
  • book­marks

Despite Google’s encryp­tion of all key­word data, there are still meth­ods to deter­mine appro­pri­ate keywords:

  • Key­word research tools – Yes, they are still effec­tive. Google AdWords Key­word Plan­ner is still the de facto key­word research tool. Ser­vices from Word­tracker and Übersug­gest are also good
  • Cus­tomer research – Pay atten­tion to the way cus­tomers describe your brand and its solu­tions. While Adobe might be keen on describ­ing the Adobe Mar­ket­ing Cloud as a “com­plete set of inte­grated solu­tions,” our cus­tomers may be using search phrases such as “how do I mea­sure key­words in mar­ket­ing mes­sages?” or “enter­prise mar­ket­ing solu­tions.” Nei­ther term has a sin­gle match­ing key­word but Google wants to con­nect the two, so your meta­data and on-page ele­ments need to correlate.
  • Paid Search key­word terms – The more you can align with paid teams, the bet­ter you can share strate­gies, data, and find­ings. In par­tic­u­lar, using paid search key­word data is a use­ful proxy for deter­min­ing top terms that con­vert on your site. With appro­pri­ate caveats for paid ver­sus organic audi­ences, this data can be use­ful to search teams and stakeholders.

Addi­tional empha­sis on adding geo­graphic con­text to Web con­tent is also more impor­tant post-Hummingbird. SEO pros must be more dili­gent in con­nect­ing local attrib­utes to on-page elements—obviously this is more impor­tant if busi­ness trans­ac­tions occur in local retail loca­tions. Searchers typ­ing “best cup of cof­fee” are now treated to local ven­dor options rather than keyword-centric national cof­fee mak­ers. There­fore, local SEO prac­tices must meet seman­tic search demands through a dif­fer­ent use of key­words. For exam­ple, “Where can I find the best cof­fee?” is now more com­monly asso­ci­ated post-Hummingbird with “Palo Alto’s finest cof­fee house.”

Remem­ber, the key to effec­tive SEO has been, and will con­tinue to be, pro­vid­ing con­tent rel­e­vant to searcher’s inter­ests. In nearly every case, there will be key­words used within the query. Avoid­ing the use of key­words in your SEO prac­tices only serves to reduce your rel­e­vance to searchers, which in turn, low­ers your rel­e­vance to Google. Key­words within anchor text is still rel­e­vant, for instance, but not as impor­tant as ensur­ing the links you point to are ulti­mately rel­e­vant to the end user. What’s impor­tant is to con­cen­trate more fully on syn­onyms and qual­i­fiers that relate to the core phrase.

Let me throw an exam­ple at you: Sup­pose you man­u­fac­ture run­ning gear (I’m fond of Asics and New Bal­ance). Tra­di­tional SEO would dic­tate that you embed branded terms like “Asics,” “run­ning shoes,” and “run­ning gear.” After Hum­ming­bird, search terms such as “shoes to improve run­ning,” “how run­ning gear can help you stay fit,” and “cold weather run­ning cloth­ing” will have greater rel­e­vance to search rank­ing for run­ning shoes and clothing.

If Hum­ming­bird has taught us any­thing, it’s that use­ful con­tent and con­text, not solely key­words, should always be the pri­mary aim of search mar­keters. Long-tail key­word promi­nence is one exam­ple of this as long-tail key­words are still a dri­ving fac­tor to improve your over­all con­ver­sion rates. That is not to say long-tail key­word empha­sis ever went away. SEO man­agers know that, as more key­words are used in a search phrase, buy­ers are often at the nar­rower end of the sales fun­nel, closer to con­ver­sion. Now that Hum­ming­bird has rolled out fully, the rela­tion­ships between key­word con­cepts (often rep­re­sented by long-tail key­word phrases) have become more rel­e­vant to search success.

So when naysay­ers decry the end of keyword-based SEO, remem­ber: it’s not the demise of key­word opti­miza­tion, the game has sim­ply changed to once again focus on page-level and content-focused optimization.

Have you had suc­cess in adapt­ing to Hum­ming­bird? What steps did you take to strengthen your SEO practices?


In my humble opinion, hummingbird has changed the entire SEO game. Long tail keywords searches return results for more broader keywords. This means authority/aged sites have an upper hand now no matter how good the content of other small sites is. 

Nauf Sid