Hummingbird Takes Flight: What it means for your SEO Strategy?


Google is at it again, changing the rules on those who want to game its ranking algorithm. The company’s latest major algorithm change, known as Hummingbird, caused quite a stir in the search industry over the last few weeks.

Hummingbird is a significant update in terms of the search algorithm as a whole, as it’s a complete replacement unlike Panda (low quality content) and Penguin (link Spam), which were tweaks targeting sites that were performing questionable SEO tactics. With a major change like Hummingbird, Google is moving towards actually processing content as a whole faster and more precisely; which is conveniently the characteristics of the algorithm’s namesake.

After observing Hummingbird in action for the past month, it’s clear the update is moving Google in the right direction; it’s about time its evaluation of relevance moving beyond just what’s on the page. We all knew query or text-based optimization hit its limit of relevance, and this is the logical next step. Practically speaking, Google is just catching up with changes and capabilities now available through semantic markup schemas. Over the last few years, with progression and adaption of markup and HTML5, there is a realistic way to extend relevance beyond keywords.

In order to continue owning the search market, Google is working to discern exactly what a page’s content means, without relying on titles, meta data and pages with proper keyword density. Unfortunately, it previously relied too heavily on external links with exact match anchor text (I’m not getting into exact match domains), having a specific landing page focused on a single keyword phrase, and even looking at social signals to weigh relevance.  This change is bringing semantics (of the page and of the query) to the surface.

If you search “what day is Christmas this year,” Google will immediately tell you Christmas falls on a Wednesday. Search, “how tall is Michael Jordan” and without leaving the results page, Google will answer 6’6,” while also providing additional general information such as his birthdate, family and career highlights. This information is all being driven by Google’s interpretation and aggregation of data from numerous sources. While this is nothing new, these elements are becoming increasingly present in search results. 

With Hummingbird, Google is looking to better accommodate more complex search requests, which circles back to targeting the exact intent of the user. The timing of this change is not an accident. You are witnessing the first step towards preparing for more prominent voice search. Google, along with Apple, and other major players, have been working towards making voice search a reality. It shouldn’t be a surprise that proper semantics will help algorithms accurately identify the best answer to the user’s question.

In summary, if you (or your SEO partner) were previously focused solely on keywords, it is likely that you saw a big impact. Alternatively, those focused on integrating semantic mark-up and relevance probably didn’t notice much of a change.

So if you just lost rankings and traffic, what can you do?

First, stop playing the game! Focus instead on developing a framework that leverages semantic technology on your website to help Google, and other search engines, properly understand the context of your content. 

 Semantic mark-up helps Google properly interpret the meaning behind the content quickly and more efficiently. Search engines are looking for ways to develop a better understanding of web content in order to provide users a smarter search experience. The knowledge graph and answer boxes in search results, along with other enhanced listings, are clear indicators of this movement.

Sites that have embraced and leveraged proper semantics are the ones that will likely benefit from this, and already have. Through analysis and the development of keyword personas, which identify highly qualified segments, my agency Isobar launched one of the first semantic mark-up integrations for a major car rental company. By leveraging location based data along with user reviews, not only did these pages outperform main site pages in organic search, but provided a 60X ROI for our client.

By applying a similar strategy around personas, user experience and proper semantics, we recently re-launched a site that averaged over 2-million unique visitors from natural search each year. Without actively building one link or focusing solely on traditional SEO, we not only maintained existing traffic and rankings, but also increased traffic by 24% right after the launch. Our focus moved from actually “doing SEO,” to defining the context of the content strategy based on the user’s need, enhancing the underlying technology and optimizing the user’s entire journey.

It should be noted, the traditional on-site activities in SEO are still critical, however, an accessible site with optimized page titles and highly relevant content is now table stakes.

This is the call for search and digital marketers to take another look at what is important when thinking about a traffic acquisition strategy – especially through organic search.It’s time to stop playing the SEO game; just build relevant content and present it in the right context, both to the users and search engines. In order to succeed in SEO over the long-term, the approach needs to continue to evolve with the search algorithm, and those who embrace data and technology are the ones who will most likely win out.