It was big news in the search community when Google launched its new algorithm, Hummingbird, said to be the most extensive rewriting of its algorithm in more than a decade. It was also big news for anyone who creates website content and cares about having it found by their target audience via search.
The Hummingbird release marks a major shift in the way Google analyzes information and serves up results. It’s designed to handle more complex queries – so-called conversational searches like voice requests via mobile device. In effect, Google is evolving from being a link engine to being an answer engine, going beyond the mere parsing of keywords to now understanding user intent and anticipating user interests based on its vast knowledge of how things fit together in the real world.
Out with keywords, in with entities
The shift from keywords to answers – where a user’s intent is not only more important but may actually be different from the words typed into a search box – is critical from an SEO standpoint. Consider this example, borrowed from Search Engine Land columnist Jenny Halasz:
You can ask, “Who is the President of the United States?” And the answer is displayed for you: it’s Barack Obama. You can then ask, “Who is his wife?” The answer is again displayed for you — it’s Michelle Obama — but let’s say you choose to click on or otherwise select a result on that page. Maybe it’s a listing of famous first wives throughout history. As the site owner, the referring keyword would be [who is his wife]. That’s not useful to you, because you don’t know if [his] refers to Obama, Jefferson, or Washington.
In other words, SEO based primarily on keywords isn’t going to cut it anymore. Instead, Google is more concerned with how those keywords form a relationship to an “entity, a concept, or a target.” You can see this at work in Google’s Knowledge Graph; try searching for a popular musician, and you’ll get a slew of structured content – biographical information, news items, lists of songs, similar artists – that Google suspects will also be of interest to you. Many suspect this function will be expanded to deliver links to buy concert tickets, for example, making Google a one-stop shop and eliminating the need to click off to another site.
Keyword data is still valuable for knowing what to put on your pages, even if the way you incorporate those words and phrases into content is changing. But guess what? Access to keyword data just got more restricted too. Google has moved to all-encrypted searches, effectively cutting off the supply of keyword data to site owners unless they sign up for Google AdWords.
Relax, it’s not the end of the world
The good news is that, if you’ve been focusing more on page quality and relevance than keyword campaigns, you’re already doing the right things. Even without Google keyword information:
- You can still measure site traffic and the effectiveness of pages to see where certain words and phrases make a difference.
- You might also dip a toe into the AdWords water if you haven’t already. Be advised: AdWords is very complicated and professional guidance is recommended.
- Data is still available from other search engines like Bing and Yahoo! While the user base might be smaller, it’s still possible to extrapolate that data and make informed assumptions about keywords.
Much of what needs to change in your content creation will happen on the back end in your CMS. Structured data and semantic markup are the way to go now more than ever. With Google looking for relationships among entities, it makes sense that you’ll want to parcel out your content the same way so that it’s easily identifiable by the algorithm.
Entrance pages matter more
Finally, unique entrance pages may be a more telling metric than keyword rankings as we move into the Hummingbird era anyhow. This makes sense if you think in terms of content that provides answers. Having more unique entries indicates:
- More expertise on more topics
- Better results on long-tail keywords
- More breadth in a specific space
This doesn’t necessarily mean creating new pages all the time. It means doing more with the content you’ve got (and not just on your home page) and adjusting your SEO activities to align with the “sharing economy” instead of the old “link economy.” By shifting from building up links to building up real connections, you’ll have more success bringing users into your site through more doors and that will win you brownie points in Google search.