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?