By Paul Hill published October 9, 2013

Keep Your Website Content Ranking After Google Hummingbird: 8 Tips

google hummingbird“How about a clip of you twerking, boss? There was an avalanche of “likes” when the office did the Harlem Shake, though not as many as when we did Gangnam Style. But if you twerk it, it’s bound to go viral.”

Take a pop culture trend. Take it out of context. Film it. Share it. Sit back and wait for the social “likes.”

Some call it trendjacking. Others say that it’s just hopping on the proverbial bandwagon. Sometimes it works, but more often that not, it’s just lame.

It’s certainly not a content strategy. Nor is it likely to help your search rankings in the era of a Googlebot that is interested in user intent.

To mark its 15th anniversary at the end of September, Google announced that it had revamped its search algorithm. The new algorithm, called Hummingbird, has been created with mobile and voice search in mind, and nine out of 10 searches will be affected.

For website content, the difference between what people are looking for and why they are looking for it is the heart of the Hummingbird issue.

Why do customers visit your website? Most likely it’s because they have a problem they are trying to solve — there’s a purpose driving their needs, and they are looking to your website content to address that purpose.

Since the late 1990s, search engines have delivered ranked results by matching keywords typed in a search bar to the keywords on a web page. It’s simple from a user’s perspective, yet devilishly clever in the mathematics and engineering that lie beneath the surface.

But words can have different meanings.

In May 2012, Google’s Senior Vice President of engineering, Amit Singhal, used the example of a search for “Taj Mahal” to illustrate this, asking, “Was the search about the monument in India, the musician, or a local curry house? What was the intent behind the search?

At that point, Google had already started to map alternative meanings by charting what other searches typically followed an initial query.

The result of Google’s efforts to clarify the context of queries and content is Hummingbird’s semantic search capabilities. It is a search engine that attempts to understand how people are using language, the various possible meanings of words or phrases, and the different context in which those words are used.

Behind the engine is Google’s “knowledge graph:” its database of possible connections between “entities” — the associated facts, figures, people, objects, and things.

It will take a while for Hummingbird’s full potential to be revealed, partly due to the continuing evolution of the ways people search. “Where do I…?” “What do I…?” “How do I…?” “What’s the difference between…?” These kinds of search queries will be nectar to the Hummingbird in the future.

Evolution from Google Panda to Hummingbird

Looking back over the last two years, you’ll see that Google has been on a consistent path. The Panda algorithm update penalized “thin” content; website content stuffed with keywords but providing little else of value to the user.

Last week, Google revealed that it would no longer provide webmasters with data about which keywords are driving traffic from search results to their websites – the move to 100 percent (Not Provided). Its message has been clear: Success in search is more than a matter of keywords. Indeed, this summer, Google was explicit in its advice to webmasters about how to rank well in search results:

In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by creating high-quality sites that users will want to use and share.

The key to ranking success is engaging website content.

The essential ingredient that Hummingbird adds is relevance. If the Googlebot is now trying to understand search intent and the meaning and context of words, relevance is the all-important criterion.

Hummingbird and website content strategy

So back to twerking. Good content can surprise and delight, even shock. But how will Hummingbird understand the relevance of that kind of content, and help your audience associate it with what your business does? A viral twerking clip might generate brand awareness. It might even prompt referral traffic or social shares. But the more important question is, if that content is on your website, will it influence Google rankings in the future?

To make sure your website content is armed to capture the Hummingbird in flight, consider these recommendations:

  1. Understand customer needs: Go to the top of your sales funnel and think about why customers want or need your product or service in the first place. If you don’t already know, you could consider using tools like Qualaroo to find the answer. For example, if you are selling personal loans, what does your website content have to say about managing household finances? Selling holiday vacation packages? What does your content say about travelling to a destination, local customs and languages spoken there, and the must-see places, eateries, galleries, or beaches?
  2. Leverage analytics tools: Do you have an on-site search tool in place to measure the effectiveness of your content? If so, take a look at the data to reveal what people are searching for when they’ve reached your site but can’t immediately find. This will provide nuggets of insight into user intent and needs that you can use to optimize your website content.
  3. Think beyond on-site blogs: Good content can take any form, whether it’s a short video clip, a graphic, an eBook, or a white paper. It doesn’t just have to be the written word. The form should fit the content you have, and the purpose behind it.
  4. Think about language: Hummingbird is geared, in part, to mobile and voice search. So be clear in the words you use and how you structure sentences. Consider synonyms — the alternative words or phrases that describe what you do and that people might use, rather than focusing your content around an exact-match keyword.
  5. Embed social media capabilities in your content: Make it easy for people to share your content and advocate for your expertise on the issues they are concerned with.
  6. Define your brand, its voice, and its values: One of the tenets of marketing is that you need to start by having a clearly defined brand. Don’t leave customers guessing who you are and what you do.
  7. Don’t be dull: Informative content does not have to be dry.
  8. Consider your sales goals: The best content marketing doesn’t just make noise that gets in the way of a sale; it complements your sales efforts. To do that, your website content has to be relevant to the products or services it supports. This isn’t just what your customers want. It’s what the Hummingbird wants, too.

For more tips on optimizing your website content for search, read CMI’s eGuide on Measuring Content Marketing Success.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Paul Hill

Paul Hill is Content Director at the award-winning SEO, content marketing, and social media agency, Further. You can follow him on Twitter @paulhill_biz.

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  • John F. Hunt

    Nice summary of the changes. It would appear, though, to have proper context and high quality content you will still need relevant keywords and need to optimize for them. What are your thoughts on this?

    • Paul Hill

      Hi John, thanks for taking the time and trouble to comment. Yes, I think keywords still have a place in content strategy. Even if Google is no longer going to indicate which keywords drive organic search traffic, there are still tools like Google Trends and the Adwords planning tool that give insight into what customers are searching for and what problems they are trying to solve. But I tend to look at keywords more as a way of identifying content themes than exact-match terms in copy.

  • Raubi Marie Perilli

    I think this is all a good thing. Content developers can really start to focus on “What can I provide to help my audience? What questions do they need answered?” rather than “What does Google want my page to include?”

    • Paul Hill

      I agree! Trying to satisfy the Googlebot ahead of trying to satisfy customers was always a flawed strategy… Google has been saying that for quite some time too! Wherever traffic comes from, a visitor is going to bounce out if they can’t find what they want or a site is poorly designed, dull or clunky to use.

  • sahil

    I have been in the top ranking for more than a month but this algo hummingbird threw my website to 5th page ,the main page of the website is not anywhere in the google searches now as it was before the upgradation of google’s algorithm..Its out of my knowledge where is my website’s index page/main page from the search..I can just see the inner pages.Because of this i have lost many to the customers as my website is not in the top .I am totally helpless .Google has ruined my business 🙁

    • Raymond Duke

      I think your problem was your relied too much on Google. If you were piggybacking on SEO to help your business, then that was simply a bad decision.

  • Kate | EntrepreneurOnFire

    Wow (to say the least)! I like your tip on “Thinking about language”. The focus turning to the intent of a user definitely adds a new twist. But what if the user isn’t even sure what that intent is? i guess that’s where synonyms could come into play? Thanks for the detailed report on the new update Paul!

    • Paul Hill

      Thanks Kate, you make a really good point. Where does chance discovery fit in content strategy? I think you’re right: it’s partly about synonyms. But I also think it’s about the form that your content takes. Be useful in substance, but be creative and engaging in the style and approach.

      • Kate | EntrepreneurOnFire

        Great advice. Repurposing content and content curation are already big, but it seems like they’re about to become much bigger in the near future!

        • Paul Hill

          Curation! Yes, and think about inviting in customers too: whether reviews (be brave) or their own content. Engagement isn’t reserved for social media channels.

          • Entrepreneur On Fire

            Love this: “Engagement isn’t reserved for social media channels.” So true Paul! I love this conversation, and I love that you’ve provided the steps here in this article to help out those who may not be ranking experts – super useful and much appreciated!

          • Paul Hill

            Thanks for the kind words, John. I was talking to someone yesterday about how they were engaging with customers online to get feedback and early quality assurance insight into beta versions of new products. Engagement isn’t just a way to sell products, it’s a way to learn what makes better products too.

      • Activ Hub- China Digital Intel

        Hi Kate, if I understand your question, it may be something like a customer who walks into a store, real one, but doesn’t really know what she wants. But the mere fact she is there gives the salesperson a starting point. So maybe web content can be written along those lines, 2 strands maybe? One for the “I know why I am here” and one for the “Hmmm, let me look around?” Again, comes down to vocab and slant.

  • Chris Johnson

    This article raises some interesting points. SEO is not a science but about applying best practices to online digital content. If you do that then you don’t need to stress about SEO as it will take care of itself. Follow the Google web masters guidelines and your page will rank where it deserves. Its not about you its about your users so forget about been obsessed with SEO and apply best practices and create content your user wants and your on a winner. Its no point having a high bounce rate with content that does not provide value to the user. I think the idea of synonyms is very creative and a creative writer may pull this of but lets not forget trying to trick Google can come with penalties. Be honest, describe your page with accuracy and attract the people who are looking for your content. Then convert them to customers. Good Luck

    • Paul Hill

      Hi Chris, thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree: don’t try to trick Google and do think about your customers. Wise advice! Where I disagree is about SEO. However user-focused and helpful the content, it still needs to be crawled and indexed. For the best practitioners, SEO has always been a technical discipline about site set-up and structure. This isn’t trying to “game the system” with spammy link-building tactics. It’s about following technical best practice to make sure there are no barriers to pages and content being indexed.

      • Chris Johnson

        Well we are nearly on the same bus Paul. Best Practices should be the goal. Once you learn them then the rest will just fall into place. Yes the technicalities of producing an SEO friendly site is beyond the average person however a good web producer should be able to do this without to much stress. The difficult task is getting that content correct.

  • chennai web designing

    Many thanks to the person who made this post, this was very informative for me. Please continue this awesome work.

  • FATbit Technologies

    We all know that Google is doing everything to make search quality more better. Now is the time when we think beyond targeting few keywords for Google ranking. We hope that everyone will try to improve over all web presence of their business, now.

    How can we make a direct relation with our target audience.? This is the big challenge for any business owner. Now we need to work in a right approach on building relation with customers.

    We would like to use word “connection building” rather than link building in SEO 🙂

    We recommend to use all tricks which are mentioned above in this post.

    Many Thanks

    • Paul Hill

      Thanks for the comment. I tend to look at links as just another form of sharing.

  • John Waghorn

    Good post Paul. I think the first point on understanding customer needs is something which has been relevant for a very long time. Optimising a site and creating content for the user should be a bigger focus compared to doing this for the search engines. Ultimately, one will have a knock-on effect on the other in time.

    Having the insights to measure how effective previous content has been is also extremely valuable as you can discover what works and what doesn’t and then use this information to target better results for your campaigns.

    • Paul Hill

      Thanks John – good point about the need to monitor and measure the impact of content. I agree wholeheartedly!

  • Diane Sperko

    Great article, Paul! Relevance is really getting the attention it needs for everyone’s SEO practices. Question: Is it a good idea to repeat a product’s common name (vs. brand name) in key words, or might that be too much?

    • Paul Hill

      Thanks Diane. Relevance and the natural use of language should help you decide. Is it natural to repeat key words (whether brand or generic terms) in a piece of text? If not – and often it isn’t relevant or natural – I’d advise against.

      • Diane Sperko

        Thanks for the guidance, Paul. That helps.

  • James Perrin

    Great tips Paul! A variety of on-page content is essential for Google to draw connections with your brand, and for that sites must have news, blogs, videos, user guides, micro-sites and so on. It’s early days to know how Hummingbird will impact on Content Marketing and Search, but I think your tips will certainly help.

    • Paul Hill

      Thanks James – appreciated. I agree that brands should think beyond words to the right variety of media to convey what they’re trying to say … and that it’s early days to know how Hummingbird will evolve. Interesting times ahead!

  • Activ Hub- China Digital Intel

    Nice article, thanks, wish that CMI didn’t have that damn great “JOIN US” box that pops up every time I read their articles tho. Not exactly customer friendly ~

    Anyway Paul, just wanted to comment on point 8.
    Seems people are still focussed on SALES as the end, Social, etc as a means to that end, but, surely even this is flawed. It is going to influence our thinking when we write, even if we are not consciously aware of it.

    I am now trying to rethink our own aim, rather than increase sales by xx%, why not make customers the focus, grow customers by yy%, reduce complaints by tt% increase customer interaction by etc etc.

    If we take customers as the end goal, doesn’t sales follow?
    Any thoughts on this?

    • Paul Hill

      You make an excellent point and ask a great question. The problem is measurement. I think you’d agree with me that social is just one part of a wider online marketing strategy. It can be a determining factor – directly affecting business objectives – or it can be a contributory factor: one of a number of channels that affect the outcome. Those objectives can range from sales to customer loyalty, as you suggest. I agree! Someone said to me recently that a “like” was the “lowest form of human commitment.” I tend to agree. I want to see social affecting my business KPIs rather than just racking up likes. Analytics tools are getting much more sophisticated at multi-channel modelling of sales: whether Google Analytics’ “social assisted conversions” or the weighted attribution models offered by other tools. My question is whether it is as “easy” to measure a direct correlation between social and customer loyalty, when for many businesses retention is influenced by a range of online and offline experiences? What do you think?

      • Activ Hub- China Digital Intel

        Hi Paul, to be honest, I am still grappling wiht this myself. But when you say “measure” and later “easy” are you suggesting that businesses seem to look for soft options? or they should?

        That’s not meant as provocative as it sounds, I just can’t write it any simpler and still have it make sense!

        Several decades back I worked for a UK chain; Radio Rentals, they rented TV’s [yes, I know!] All our measurements, at both local branch level, area level [mine] and HO were in customers or subscribers, so, easy to measure and track… oh, no Social Net then, well no Internet either.

        Even at senior conference levels we always discussed growth in number of renters, budgets were set to this. Of course the aim was not just to keep the renter from the competition,[ it was pretty bloody and fierce back then] but to increase their spend by upgrading them, but at the end of the day, it was customer numbers that were important.

        I always saw it as a battle for the customers mind, if we could win that then the the customer was more amenable to upgrading or adding a video player, a second small set etc. So by building relationships with customers as well as “getting to know them” personally, we had their trust and loyalty.

        Sorry, this is getting long.

        As you say, “likes” are superficial, I think I have 200 odd on my G+ but what do they mean in real terms? Not much.

        Back in radio Rental days, my area took in a working class area, strikes, downturns lockouts, industrial accidents etc were common. Then there were “New Family Arrivals” school fees, money went up and down.

        By keeping in physical touch with our subs we knew this and would offer a short down grade period to a small, less costly set to help wiht their difficult financial period. This didn’t build likes, it build loyalty, local “corner shop” style business but on a nationwide scale.

        I partially agree with your second line, re social as a strategy although isn’t everything we do to contact / relate / advertise to customers SOCIAL in some degree?

        I see social as a VASE sitting on a coffee table. The table is Digital Intelligence, which supports SOCIAL, social hold the flowers, or the CONTENT and it is the content that ultimately wins or loses the battle of the customer.

        I can’t help wondering if part of the problem is we are so far stepped in …. that we can’t or don’t want to see an alternative.
        Why does an objective need to be either or?
        Why not set an objective to increase customer numbers?
        Determine methods to do this.
        Its just thinking about numbers with a different counter, ie, customers not dollars!
        Then there are sub channels to go down to differentiate different campaign objectives; upgrade, try a related product,

        Yep, I know, idealistic right now, if I knew how to make this work I would likely be buying up every agency in creation!~

  • Kirby

    It seems everyone is under the impression that people actually want to read all this fine content we are putting out. I don’t think most spend their time researching much of anything. Hummingbird smacks of another “Geeks view of reality” that just isn’t. I wonder how long before us content providers/webmasters/seo’s get slapped with a too-much-in-depth-content-for-the-average-consumer-of-information penalty. Don’t they realize every move they make sends a ripple of activity to do just what they want? They are going to have to shoot all of us SEO’s to get truly organic results.

    • Paul Hill

      Hello Kirby. If someone is producing content and it’s not being consumed, they’re doing it wrong. That might sound a bit glib, but SEO in 2014 isn’t going to be about rankings or old school attempts to game the algorithm, it’s about helping webmasters create sites that genuinely engage the target audience and deliver traffic and conversions. It’s most definitely not about creating content for the sake of it. It’s not about creating content that gets in the way of a sale just to try to please search engines. My view is that it’s also not about creating “short term” content that prompts a spike in interest that rapidly drops away (and may well coincide with a high bounce-rate while that content has its moment in the spotlight). So it’s very much about doing what’s right for the consumer/target audience.

      • Activ Hub- China Digital Intel

        I tend to side with Paul a bit on this one Kirby, but I see your point.
        As a consumer in a society where info overload has gone beyond crazy I DO actively seek out [research] “stuff” that is more appealing and targeted at me and my needs. Probably you do to, although I don’t know where you live, maybe your life is more restrained and civil!

        As a marketer, we are turning more to CUSTOMER driven In Bound, and although it is early days I am starting to see some positive results from this, mostly from our EDM where although the “OPEN” rate hasn’t increased much, reader activity has. More links are opened and we are actually getting feedback. The latter NEVER happened during the year when we focused less on content.

        In other words, since we actually began to write from the “what is it our customers want” perspective things seem to be better, but as I said, early days~

  • Adam

    It’s more about having the contents that Google thinks it’s relevant and useful.

  • seamus

    Great article, thanks! I guess it really boils down to serving our customers with the content they need, rather than merely tending to the “needs” of machines.

  • priya

    very usefull Thanks for sharing..

  • mony
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  • Daniel

    Very powerful yet simple, post hummingbird Google Ranking Tips, Paul. There is a huge shift towards mobile for both websites and in regards to YouTube…and this will continue to increase quite dramatically….

    Google is definitely moving towards a “Content focus” as far as what consumers are looking for.

    • Paul Hill

      Thanks for the kind words, Daniel – appreciated. You’re right – Google wants to give its users satisfying answers to their queries: that means good quality, relevant content.