Hummingbird, Not Provided & What it Means for SEO


As Rick explained in his blog about recent developments at Google, the latest ‘Hummingbird’ update to how Google ranks sites is designed to root out the intent of more complicated searches. Where we might previously have Googled “Italian Restaurant Soho” on a desktop computer, we might now use voice search on our phone to ask Google “Where’s the best Italian Restaurant near here?” – for which it will weave in location data, Google+ data from our contacts, Google News results and more to provide you with options in your vicinity.

This shift in how we search, and Google’s subtle move towards the ‘intent’ of keywords, rather than the keywords themselves as the basis of its algorithm, once again throws the emphasis squarely onto content and sharing. As has always been the case with algorithm updates, Google is trying to provide the best results for users’ searches. And with Hummingbird, there is a clear sense that Google can actually understand the meaning of a website’s content – and therefore judge its relevance to a query on more than keyword matching alone.

So what impact will this have on SEO? Well, Google has always been clear that it will favour high quality websites that perform well for their visitors. At the heart of this is great content that answers people’s queries and provides a good user experience. More recently, Google has also highlighted that it factors in the ‘share-worthiness’ of a site – ie the more people want to share that great content, the better it must be, and consequently the more likely Google is to rank it highly.

More than ever, then, high quality SEO that will solve intent-based queries is all about content and sharing. While Google will still use ‘keywords’ as part of its assessment of how relevant a site is to any search, Hummingbird suggests it will be looking far less at specific words and phrases used within a piece of content and much more at its general ‘flavour’. Low quality SEO that hangs on to keyword stuffing is being rooted out – and those of us that have been pushing the importance of content marketing, sharing, Google+ and not trying to ‘game’ the system should be reaping the rewards.

Not Provided

One ‘casualty’ of the new algorithm and its decreased emphasis on keywords is Google’s announcement that it will be removing all Organic keyword data from Google Analytics. Officially, this is being done to protect the privacy of Google users. And although angry digital marketers around the world have theorised that it’s a cynical move by Google to push businesses into using its AdWords advertising platform (which still will provide keyword data), it underlines the shift from a keyword-centric approach to a less easily defined intent-based one.

Unfortunately, there is some fall-out for digital marketers and SEOs in particular in that the level of detail we are able to glean and the depth of reporting we are able to provide will be decreased. Previously, among many other things, we could see exactly what keywords people were using to arrive at a site, which terms were resulting in sales or enquiries, and understand how the balance of branded traffic (ie those who already know about a brand) vs unbranded traffic (those who ‘discover’ it as a result of SEO efforts) was shifting.

Keyword data also allowed business owners and marketers to understand broadly how different marketing activities were affecting visits, enquiries and sales on the site: searches for particular products might prove the value of an offline advertising campaign, searches for the brand might prove the value of PR, while searches for generic terms might prove the value of SEO.

Understanding exactly how these things break down will be trickier without the ability to drill into keyword data – a fact which has alarmed many in the digital marketing community. But the fundamentals of ‘Good SEO’ and how that is rewarded by Google have swung in favour of the agencies that have pushed the benefits of content marketing and improved user experience. So although there will be an inevitable period of adaption, there is also a sense of confidence that has rippled through the Reload office – because there’s nothing better than the feeling that you’re ahead of the game.