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Optimizing for the Hummingbird Algorithm

Google officially announced the release of the Hummingbird algorithm at its 15th anniversary conference on September 26 2013. The Hummingbird algorithm was a complete restructuring of the Google search algorithm with semantic search at its core, and impacted 90 percent of searches worldwide. Google made answering questions a priority in its Hummingbird update. With its focus on user intent and the contextual meaning of keywords used in a search query, Hummingbird is delivering more accurate and precise results than ever before.

hummingbird infographic

The update incorporates all of the previous algorithms: PageRank, Panda and Penguin, as well as newer algorithms such as RankBrain, Pigeon, Top Heavy, Mobile Friendly, Pirate and Possum.

The Hummingbird algorithm is based on Google’s semantic search technology. Semantic search uses Latent Semantic Indexing to better understand the underlying meaning web content and their relationship to the search terms used in a search query, rather than parsing through keywords used in the search query.

With the Hummingbird algorithm, users are asking entire sentences, and semantic search takes into account the entire search query, how they work together, and attempts to understand what specific words mean rather than associating keywords and key phrases with specific search terms. The context of every word in the search query is taken into account. It’s no longer about the individual words themselves, but what they indicate or mean.

The goal is that pages that match the actual meaning of the query or intent of the searcher will create a better user experience than simply matching pages based on exact match keywords as was the case prior to semantic search. Using your current location and context, Google will return the most relevant results for the query in a more precise manner than it did pre-Hummingbird. These geo-targeted, conversational, query-specific results are meant to help users find the results most relevant to them.

Understanding the user’s intent behind asking the question and context such as location, social connections on Google+, previous searches and other information that Google already knows about the searcher, Google ensures the pages in search results match the meaning of the entire query rather than pages that match individual keywords. Essentially, organic search on Google is now much more personalized, and the same search can yield different results to each searcher, based on their unique circumstances and intent.

This means that SEO and keyword research would need to be a much more personalized process for any given website. Simply optimizing your web pages or website for certain keywords, no matter how relevant they are to a particular website is now less effective in getting your site a competitive search ranking on the SERP.

Optimizing for the Hummingbird update

Optimize for user intent.

User intent describes what a searcher is actually looking for when they conduct a search query. Google’s main goal is to ensure the best possible user experience by matching the searcher with content that matches their intent. Optimizing for user intent requires a deep understanding of your buyer personas and their problems, challenges and pain points. Consider the intent behind the keywords you optimize your site for, and ensure that the page you serve up in response to a search query matches the specific intent of the searcher.

Use LSI Keywords in your content.

LSI keywords are words and phrases that are found naturally in articles about a specific topic because they have a relationship with the primary keyword. They are part of the topic’s natural vocabulary and allow search engines to find content that is relevant to the search term even though the webpage doesn’t include the keywords used in the search query. For example, a page that talks about Bing, Excel, Outlook and Hotmail can rank for Microsoft even though it doesn’t have Microsoft in it. It is ranking based on those grouped words that belong to Microsoft.

Write in-depth, comprehensive content.

Content is the second most important ranking signal in the Hummingbird algorithm. With long tail phrases and conversational searching, authoritative content will continue to be directly linked to high rankings. When developing a content marketing strategy, you need to know the primary audience you’re writing for to be able to create content that builds authority, trust and credibility. Aim to provide value by publishing long-form, practical and actionable content that solve specific problems for your target audience.

Focus on optimizing for specific, long tail keywords.

Long tail keywords are typically more specific and longer than other types of search queries. They generally get less search traffic, but the great thing about these types of keywords is that it is much easier to rank for long tail keywords, and they will usually have a higher conversion value because searchers who use them already know what they want. With Google Hummingbird specifically designed to handle natural language and complex queries, long tail keywords are fundamental to SEO strategy.

Optimizing for long tail keywords leads to more precise search results because user intent is often clearer to discern. With voice search becoming so popular, you should be aiming to optimize for conversational searches and natural language by doing question research for industry-related questions. These types of searches tend to answer the classic 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, why and how. Knowing what questions people ask in your industry will give you great insights into their problems, challenges and pain points.

Build a proper site structure.

With the Hummingbird algorithm, Google has moved away from displaying results based on keywords alone, and looks at the bigger picture of the website as a whole when trying to understand the meaning and contextual relevance of a search query. It looks at the overall keyword theme of the website, and what the site’s content is about. In a Google patent, “the reasonable surfer” Google explicitly talks about headings. Headings tend to contain certain keywords are important for the topic of a given page. So it is very important that we structure our site around our primary keyword to form a strong based keyword theme, leaving no doubt in Google’s eyes exactly what our site is about.

Building a site around LSI keywords will provide a very meaningful structure to the site which means that the ranking algorithm will have a very strong understanding of what the site is about. This is why it is so important to structure content around LSI keywords based on a specific keyword theme.

If we’re targeting a particular keyword, the entire site needs to be built around that keyword, not just a few pages but the entire site. This will give Google no doubt about what the site is about. If our primary keyword is hosting services, the entire site and its content has to be built around that keyword theme with LSI in mind.

How to structure your content:

  • Make it easy for the reader to know what your article is about by putting your primary keyword in the first paragraph of your content. This will let the reader know what your article is about.
  • Your headings should be compelling and clearly state the content of the paragraph below it. It should allow your reader to quickly scan through your text and to decide whether or not they would like to read your article.
  • The first sentences of each paragraph should be the core sentence of that paragraph with the target keyword included.
  • Avoid putting too many ads at the top of your web page. The Top Heavy algorithm downgrades the ranking of a web page with too many ads, or if the ads are considered too distracting for users.

Optimize for voice search.

With voice search becoming such an integral part of the Google search experience, optimizing for voice search is critically important, especially for local businesses. Voice search allows users to interact naturally with their devices by using a conversational voice to search for the information they are looking for. A searcher using voice search tends to use the “who, where, what, why and how” questions that are often used in natural and conversational language.

Emphasize local questions. When using voice search, users are likely to specify words like “nearby” or “near me”. This means you need to place emphasis on local keywords to attract local searchers. You also need to anticipate real questions that contain much more keywords to accommodate how searchers tend to use conversational and natural language that is more specific in nature when interacting with Voice search and virtual assistant applications.

Get on Google+

Google+ and Google Search are directly linked, which makes Google+ a powerful search engine marketing tool. Using Google Tools always helps to achieve higher Google Search Rankings for your keywords. Google+ is not just another social network. Google+ is at the heart of the Google experience. When you share content on Google+, it gets indexed immediately and shows up in search results.

The true value of Google+ however lies in its ability to establish your digital identity and help you become more prominent in the Google search results. Sharing blog posts on Google+ can get you ranking for keyword terms that you might otherwise not be able to. In addition, content posted on Google+ is more likely to show up in search results than other content posted to other social networks due to the fact that Google ranks their own social network higher and crawl it faster. It’s really important to claim and optimize your Google+ brand page.

If you’re a local business, having a complete and well-optimized Google My Business listing will increase your chances of being found when a local user is searching for the products and services you provide. If you have multiple locations, make sure that each location has a Google My Business page. Furthermore, geotagging pictures with the location of your business will increase the likelihood of being discovered via voice search

Build high quality links from relevant and authoritative sites.

Credible backlinks are a major component of Hummingbird, and Google has confirmed that links are the most important signal in their search ranking algorithm. Generally speaking, the more natural, inbound links from high ranking sites and blogs that lead to your site, the more authoritative and trustworthy your site will look to the search engines. This in turn equates to better search engine visibility and ultimately, more traffic to your site.

Links are viewed by search engines as “votes” for your website and its content. In fact, backlinks are just as important for ranking purposes as they’ve ever been. Search engine algorithms still use links from authoritative and established sites to make decisions about the perceived trust and authority of your site as a whole, and its pages in particular. What has changed is that Google’s algorithms are now more successful than ever at identifying manufactured links.

Share your content on social media.

Semantic search has a social component in that it seeks to provide the best results based on what Google knows about you including your network of contacts, previous searches and social shares, current trends, use of connecting words and geographical location. The algorithm tends to trust content that is shared more often.

So, by creating quality content and using social media sites to share that content, business have the ability to increase rankings naturally. The most important social media platforms for small and local businesses are Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Twitter. Google indexes all Google+ pages, so by posting content on Google+, you increase your chances of your content being discovered.

Implement semantic mark-up.

Adding schema to your web pages gives you the ability to convey a large amount of information to search engine. Google states that by adding schema.org mark-up, search engines gain a much stronger understanding of what your content actually means, the context in which the content is used, and how it should be treated. It also lets search engines know what you consider to be the most important pages of your website.

For example with schematic mark-up, Google can see that your opening hours are not just a bunch of random numbers, they actually inform visitors about your opening times. Essentially, this will help search engines serve more accurate, in-depth and relevant search results. It will also affect the say search engines display your data in the search results. The search engines want to have 100% confidence in understanding the properties of a particular website and what they refer to.

Improve user engagement metrics.

There has been much debate about the influence of CTR and dwell time on organic rankings. In Google’s own words, “Searching users are often the best judges of relevance, so that if they select a particular search result, it is likely to be relevant, or at least more relevant than the presented alternatives.”

A SearchMetrics’ study even found that CTR has the highest correlation with rankings out of all factors examined. In addition, a real-life experiment by Moz has also shown that a CTR increase almost immediately results in a ranking boost.

Industry experts also believe that RankBrain Google’s machine-learning artificial intelligence system and a key component of the Hummingbird algorithm, measures how users interact with search results and ranks them accordingly.

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