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
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?