Google Hummingbird: rewarding high-quality web content

bird2An old myth about SEO that still persists is that it’s still about “keyword stuffing” your on-page content, hence the old joke: “An SEO copywriter walks into a bar, pub, public house, hotel, restaurant and orders a beer, lager, wine, whisky, drink”.

Imagine if every page, post, article, blog, report you read was written this way. It’d get annoying, irritating, infuriating pretty fast, right?

Google thought so too.

That’s why, year on year, they’ve been refining their algorithm with the ultimate goal of rewarding “natural” content located through “conversational” search.

With their latest update, Hummingbird, they’ve come closer to cracking it than ever before.

What the heck is Hummingbird and why should I care?

Google updates its algorithm frequently. You might have already heard of the Panda and Penguin updates. But Hummingbird is a different beast — instead of an upgrade it’s a new algorithm that processes search terms in an entirely new way.

The main difference is that it claims to be able to understand and interpret “real” search queries in an insightful way — finally killing off the old “keyword stuffing” myth for good.

The way we search is changing. At the same time, Google is getting smarter.

Instead of simple keyword based searches, we’re increasingly searching more naturally, partly because of voice-activated searches (think iOS’s Siri), but also because search engines are getting better at interpreting what we’re asking for.

Consider these two searches:

“Best London Restaurant SE1″
“Where’s the best place to eat near London Bridge?”

Once upon a time, the Google algorithm was skewed towards producing quality results for the former. Because it couldn’t understand the latter.

But these days Google is smarter. It knows to consider “restaurant, cafe, bar etc” when you say “place to eat”. And it knows how to weight each word. Once upon a time, you might have just got search results for “best place near London Bridge”. Which is why you searched for “Best London Restaurant SE1″ instead.

SEO and copywriting are not the same thing

As a copywriter, I’m often asked if I “do” SEO. But while optimising copy for search engines is a part of every digital copywriter’s job, it’s only one very small part of the search engine optimisation process. One part in ten, according to moz.com and it’s a role that’s often misinterpreted.

People still think it’s about keywords. It’s not. It’s about content.

In common with previous algorithms, Hummingbird places a heavy emphasis on the number, relevance and trustworthiness of inbound links to your page. If a widely read and trusted authority on a topic links to your page, you’re more likely to appear in search.

All the keywords in the world won’t count if Google assigns no “authority” to your page, measured in inbound links from trustworthy sites.

Of course, it’s still important to place your keywords (naturally) into your page title, your

tag, even once or twice on the page, so Google knows what your page is about.

But the key to understanding Hummingbird is the fact that Google’s advice remains unchanged:

“Nothing has changed. If you have original, high-quality content, and you have high-quality and relevant websites linking to your own website, then your website is still going to rank well.”

Google’s goal has always been towards rewarding high quality content and providing people with the most relevant pages for their search. Hummingbird makes it easier to do that.

Keywords still count, but each year their role becomes smaller and smaller.

Instead of asking “what keywords will users be searching for” we need to ask “what kind of information are users looking for?”

People don’t search the web for keywords, they search the web for answers. And Google rewards pages that provide them.

If you doubt the primacy of “provide relevant and high quality information that people will link to” as an SEO strategy, ask yourself one question:

What’s the most commonly returned “first” result for a typical Google search?

More often than not, it’s Wikipedia.

Why? Not because it has the most on-page search engine optimisation. But because it gives people the information they want. And people link to it.