What Does the Google Hummingbird Update Mean for SEO?

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From a user’s perspective, Google seems fairly static aside from the colorful and clever designs the search engine posts on its main page. Behind the scenes, though, its architects are constantly working to improve its functionality, weed out low-value sites and promote meaningful content. The search engine giant releases small updates frequently, but large changes are less common. For SEO analysts and writers, a major new Google update could mean the need to redesign or rewrite whole websites.

Toward the end of September, Google’s Matt Cutts announced the latest large revision, Google Hummingbird. The Google Panda and Penguin updates are still making an impact on SEO even years after their release. The spun content, keyword stuffing and low-value links these updates were designed to combat continue to be punished on Google’s search engine results pages. Will Hummingbird have a similar revolutionary effect? Not according to Google representative and senior VP of search, Amit Singhal.

In his address to reporters, Singhal said that Hummingbird had been in place for at least a few months although the announcement was just released recently. The point of the algorithm, he said, was not to combat spam sites and thin content but to give users the kind of sophistication and sensitivity they expect of a leading-edge search engine. For SEO content creators, the Hummingbird update only reinforces the trends already taking shape in the industry, emphasizing quality content rich with relevant information and pushing spam off the front pages.

Previous incarnations of Google easily recognized relatively simple Boolean search commands – strings of text using plus and minus signs as markers to signify “and” or “or” in the search – but was sometimes confounded by natural phrases. You don’t need to be familiar with the intricacies of Boolean logic to have used it in the Google search bar. If you’ve ever typed a string such as “Long Island SEO” or put quotation marks around search strings to be used exactly as written, you’ve followed Boolean search rules.

With Hummingbird – so named because it’s compact and fast, says Singhal – you can type more natural text and expect relevant results. Instead of typing “French Buffalo dinner” and hoping that the search engine gives you local bistro suggestions instead of recipes for bison steak au poivre, you can type “Where is a good French restaurant in Buffalo?” and get a better response. The system will also recognize the previous keyword-heavy search terms, but now it also responds to natural English usage.

Google has worked hard on localization and on making data relevant to specific users. If you have ever witnessed its predictive text in action, you’ve probably noticed how close its results are to what you had in mind. The search engine uses a complex array of data, including your search history, regionally popular search terms and location information, to build a picture of what you’re likely to ask. Often, it’s uncannily accurate. With Hummingbird, that accuracy will increase, making Google even more responsive to users’ questions.

Hummingbird is, if anything, good news for knowledgeable SEO content providers. A search engine that recognizes and responds to natural text in queries is also responsive to natural writing on the page, something that Google’s past Penguin and Panda algorithms have already proven important. Contextual cues in content can now match real questions more closely, giving Google users a more direct path to the sites they want to visit.

If you already have great SEO content, keep publishing; Google thrives on fresh, rich content and rates it highly. If you still look at keyword density and heavy back-linking strategies to do your heavy lifting, the Hummingbird update is a great time to improve your SEO stock.

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