On the eve of their 15th birthday, Google turned the tables and gave the Internet a shiny new present: Hummingbird, the search giant's largest search algorithm update since 2001. The search engine's recent overhaul — which affects 90 percent of searches — aims to filter "fluff" content that are created solely for nabbing search engine optimization and instead deliver better, higher quality search results.
How the Google Hummingbird update works
The new Hummingbird update works in two ways: First, instead of traditional keyword searches, it uses conversational searches to deliver search results that are more on point with what users are looking for. It also displays search content right on the search pages themselves, which makes it easier for users to find the information they need.
"The main reasons Google created the Hummingbird update revolve around the nature by which people search more frequently," said Kenneth Wisnefski, president and CEO of WebiMax, an internet marketing company. "Conversational search has become a large driver of the type of searches people search for, and the update provides a better result display to accommodate those requests."
In practice, this means that users' searches are becoming longer and more specific. Whereas prior search algorithms focused on keywords, the new algorithm will now focus on users' intent by answering questions that they are asking in their searches.
"Rankings in the past have been around generic keywords, such as a search for 'iPhones,'" Wisnefski said. "Now, more people are searching, 'Where can I find the best price on an iPhone 5s.' It levels the playing field as the company with the generic results will be pushed out for more localized and specific search returns."
How does the Hummingbird update affect businesses?
The Hummingbird update will likely result in a shift for business website rankings.
"Those businesses that didn’t have great results for generic terms will have more opportunity to see better placement," Wisnefski said.
To meet the search standards set forth by the Hummingbird update and not suffer in search rankings, businesses should rethink how customers are using the Internet to find products and services. [Read related article: 10 Google Tools for Promoting Your Small Business]
"Hummingbird's emphasis on conversational search queries and natural language parallels the growth voice powered search via iPhones and Android devices," said Amy Leefe, a digital marketing consultant at Arketi Group, a high-tech B2B public relations and digital marketing agency. "Google has been driving toward deeper support for long-tail queries for some time, and Hummingbird takes this further by concentrating on answers versus data."
This is because the keywords people use to search the Internet do not always reflect what they are actually looking for, unlike in real life or when using a voice search on mobile devices.
"For example, people may type things like 'buy yoga mat Buckhead' in Google on a browser, but would say a command verbally such as, 'What's the closest place to buy a yoga mat to my home?'" Leefe said. "A traditional search engine might focus on finding matches for keywords, such as finding a page that says 'buy' and 'yoga mat,' for example."
Instead, Hummingbird helps Google understand the meaning behind those words to deliver better search results, Leefe said.
"It may better understand the actual location of your home, if you've shared that with Google," she said. "It might understand that 'place' means you want a brick-and-mortar store. It might get that 'yoga mat' is a particular type of workout supply carried by certain stores. Knowing all these meanings may help Google go beyond just finding pages with matching words."
It's up to businesses, however, to help Hummingbird tell Google that their page is the page users are looking for.
"Businesses need to consider as many queries as possible, and what the searcher could really be asking," said Bill Sebald, owner of Greenlane Search Marketing, a search engine optimization (SEO) consulting group. "If your business is relevant for a search like, 'the best plasma TV to buy,' are consumers looking for bang for their buck in this case? Or rationale as to why it’s the best? Popular opinion? Content should now expand to cover as many meanings as possible to be more appetizing to the Hummingbird algorithm."
As an added benefit, the Hummingbird update also gives businesses more topics to write about and provides an opportunity to update older, evergreen content that suffers from short-sighted tunnel vision, Sebald said.
"Content for the sake of 'words on a page' doesn't have the base value it once had," Sebald said. "Now, your content really has to answer something. This should move content strategy higher on the list of business marketing objectives; it's now even more important for desktop and mobile SEO."
The dark side: Is Google stealing my data?
One of the biggest changes Hummingbird has to offer is search content displayed right on search pages.
"Say you were searching for 'Total Recall' because you can't remember what year it came out. If you type in 'Total Recall,' Google will bring you back the results it normally does, but on the side, where there was normally blank white space, it will show you the IMDB picture, description, release year, actors, etc.," said Mike Evans, Owner of Boost Rank SEO, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based SEO company.
Although this is helpful for users, it can do a disservice to businesses, Evans said. With this feature, Google not only scrapes content from other websites to display information on search pages, but the process also promotes a Google-only user experience.
"Basically, what Google is doing is trying to keep you on their properties as long as possible," Evans said. Instead of visiting a website for the information, Google makes the data readily available.
"Imagine you were NBA.com and someone searched for 'Miami Heat score.' Google would scrape your site, take your information and display it on the search page. So instead of driving visitors to your site to check the scores, now they have all the information they need and go about their day — and you just lost a visitor," he said.
In the case of "Total Recall," Google also provides a "Watch It Now" link that will take users to Google Play, if applicable, Evans said. Similarly, a search for "flights to Los Angeles" will display airfares that direct users to Google Flight Search, and a search for Staples Center takes you to a Google event ticket search when you click on an event.
"Whenever possible, Google will try to route you to one of their properties, such as YouTube, Play, Picasa, etc.," he said.
So what should businesses do when Google takes your data and uses it to prevent customers from visiting your website? Adapt, Evans said. "Businesses are going to have to offer something else to their visitors to make it worth the click for them to go to the site."Although Google does not tolerate content scraping, Evans said businesses have to roll with the punches.
"The Big G gets to make up their own rules," he said. "If they want to take your data, they do. As an Internet marketer, I've learned that's just part of the game. You've got to adapt and roll with it."