SEO post Google Hummingbird

by Tim Hill (aka Doodled)

February 8th 2014
SEO for Hummingbird in 2014
Hummingbird has been released, but it hasn't been unleashed ...

Hummingbird is Google’s new algorithm for indexing the web. Launched in late 2013 there was no noticeable difference to the search results. This is because we are not talking about what Hummingbird is, but what it can do and will be doing as we go through 2014.

Panda and Penguin were about removing the real dross from search results and they will continue to do so. But Hummingbird is about trying to sort out what is left in a more accurate way.

At its core Hummingbird aims to understand search queries better and understand ‘authority’ better. In other words what is the internet user actually asking (the exact query) and who is best positioned (has the most authority) to answer it?

Although what I will talk about here is Hummingbird, the aims are similar for all major search engines but it is perhaps Google that is best placed to achieve them due to the data it has at its disposal.

The goal of internet search engines in 2014

Google’s basic question when it comes to ranking has not changed:

What makes website ‘A’ a better/worse place to buy/read about ‘X’ than website ‘B’?

With Hummingbird Google’s considerations on how to answer that question will evolve. The list below is a mix of what is and what will be:

  • How do people* act on the website (user behavior metrics including Click Through Rates, Bounce Rates, average time on site, etc.). The better people* react the more authority that site or page should have.
  • How actions do people* take while and after visiting the website:
    • Do they share anything via social networks?
    • Do they review the website/business anywhere?
    • Do they create links to the website (e.g. from a blog)?
    • Do they bookmark the website on their browser or on a bookmarking service?
    • Do they return to the website again at a later date?
  • Does the website/website author exhibit expertise in any given area:
    • Is there a Google+/Facebook/Twitter profile related to the product/subject that is followed by real people*.
    • Are there brand references on related and respected forums / discussion groups / Question-and-Answer sites?

Now if you are one of those people who has an ecommerce site which sells the type of must have but essentially uninspiring products you feel no one would ever want to talk about (I call them “screws and nails shops”) I’ll come to that at the end of this post … read on!

First, however, I’ve put a * beside ‘people’ in the text above. Why? Because the people question is one which Google’s Hummingbird (and I believe every other major search engine) wants to get to grips with.

*The “people” question

Search engines have, in the past, taken a fairly basic view over a ‘person’ with each being treated equally. Google especially wants to change this to reflect the real world. So, for example, if Madonna buys a particular item of clothing in a shop that means much more than if a housewife called Janet from New Jersey makes the same purchase.

People, in general, perceive that Madonna has a greater sense of style than Janet (reality is not important here) and hence the importance placed on Madonna’s purchase happens alongside the general indifference placed on Janet’s purchase.

Google hopes to harness social networks and other resources in a far greater way (including its own Google+) to work out each person’s relative importance in general and in relation to specific fields.

So, for example, if Matt Cutts (head of Google Webspam) was to follow my SEO blog that would mean more than if Rand Fishkin (a Moz co-founder) were to follow me.

Both are important figures in the world of SEO so either of them would be a positive asset on my blog because they are figures related to my websites subject area but, relative to each other, Matt Cutts is better.

Who is “better” is defined by characteristics such as the number of Google+ followers, who those Google+ followers are, mentions on respected forums, the standing of websites where the person writes (connected via Google’s Authorship), etc., etc. There are actually far too many factors to list here but you get the drift.

This means if Madonna were to follow my SEO blog this would count but not as much as Matt Cutts because Madonna is not known for her interest or expertise in Search Engine Optimization.

Note social network connections will not be the only factor in assessing authority. Google already has many other sources such as the ‘City Expert’ program and they are collecting names for people who want to be considering experts in all sorts of other fields. A huge database for them to mine!

The diversity of people

By understanding how people fit together search engines will be able to take identifying genuine sites a step further. For example, on the question of Scottish Independence those supporting the idea include people of note such as Sean Connory and Alex Salmond. There will then be a descending cross section of people (in terms of notability) all the way down to the person who opened a social media profile yesterday and is, therefore, not yet of note in the virtual world.

Not every site needs a celebraty but it is the diversity of people that is important and you can't get that diversity from 1,000 computer generated social media profiles.

Degrees of separation

This is already used in link building. If apple.com links to Website ‘A’ which then links to Website ‘B’, Website ‘B’ benefits from the apple.com link.

The logic flows that apple.com would not link to the type of website that didn’t link to other related websites or websites of similar quality. This process is known as ‘passing link juice’ because it flows from site to site – although it is reduced as it passes through each one and hence why a direct link from apple.com would be better.

Degrees of separation from people

Google, in assessing who or what is expert in any field, hopes to achieve a similar ‘link juice’ concept with people. So if Matt Cutts connects with someone else on a social network and that person then connects with me I will feel some of the benefit of the “Matt Cutts connection”.

Google follows the assumption that Matt Cutts wouldn’t connect with someone who connects with idiots …

It’s all social jostling just like in the real world. I would like Matt Cutts to connect with me directly but if I can’t have that then the next best option would be to connect with someone who is connected to Matt.

How people with authority can influence rankings

I've covered the concept that if a person with authority connects with a website that's positive. But there is a further factor if a person with authority contributes to a website with the logic working like this:

  1. John Smith is an authority on coffee
  2. John Smith is an author of some/all of the content on haveagreatcoffee.com (tied via Google Authorship markup code)
  3. therefore haveagreatcoffee.com is an authoritative site on coffee

Here John's authority is a factor in defining the authority of a website in the subject area of coffee.

How websites can influence people's authority

We can stand the situation on its head as well so:

  1. haveagreatcoffee.com is an authority on coffee because people link to it/share it/spend alot of time there/etc.
  2. John Smith is an author of some/all of the content on haveagreatcoffee.com (tied via Google Authorship markup code)
  3. therefore John Smith is an authoritative person on coffee

Here the website's authority is a factor in defining the authority of a John Smith in the subject area of coffee.

And hence why guest blogging on websites with authority is a valuable activity that will benefit your individual authority and which in turn will benefit the authority of your website.

And so it goes round and round and round!

Putting it together

So we've got three core activities to focus on:

  1. Getting lots of links is not enough, you need to get the 'right' links
  2. Being connected to 'people' is not enough, you need to be connected to the 'right' people … or connected to the people who are connected to the 'right' people.
  3. Establishing expertise or 'authority' both on and off your website is going to be essential.

What’s natural and what’s not

But these activities have got to appear natural. Ideally your website and your content are so good that this is exactly what will happen.

Remember a large number of websites have been hit by bans or dropped from the index’s of major search engines for carrying out activities which look unnatural. This will continue and intensify because trying to create the illusion that a website is popular will become harder and harder.

Thus, any natural entity, be it a shop, blog or cause, should have a fair cross section of people interested in it if it is genuine and worth ranking. Furthermore the links to it should also come from a cross section of sources – from the respectable to the “not yet notable” website*.

The more respected the websites are that have links to yours and the more notable the people are who connect to you or your website the better – and the more those websites and people are related to your subject area the better.

Here are some examples of natural and not natural:

  • Natural – getting 1,000 backlinks in a day is completely possible if a website goes viral but it must be balanced with one or more of the following:
    • Social media buzz - shares/likes/tweets/posts/etc.
    • The links coming from a variety of websites* – old/new/respected/unknown/etc.
    • Forum buzz – mentions in discussions
    • Etc.
  • Natural – getting 1,000 Facebook fans in a day is completely possible but, as with the above backlink example, it must be balanced with other activity on the web.
  • Unnatural – getting 1,000 Facebook fans in a day when there is no other activity on the web and all those Facebook profiles are of a similar standing – i.e. they are all Facebook profiles not connected with anyone of note by any close degrees of separation.
  • Unnatural – getting social media shares or backlinks when the site has no traffic. Why would people link to or share something they haven’t seen?
  • … and so it goes on. Basically if there is an unnatural pattern that can be spotted mathematically, it will be.

You can substitute 'Facebook' in the above bullet points with any other social media network but you get the picture.

*I want to clarify the bit about links just in case it is not understood hence the * by ‘websites’ above. Links from ‘respectable’ websites only is not unnatural, but large numbers of links from websites which have no notable standing on the web is unnatural. Hence why achieving a handful of quality backlinks is always advisable to indemnify your website against accidental annihilation (referred to in Google as Google Bowling) or negative SEO attacks by competitors.

For your website or for you (and your business)?

Most of what I have outlined here makes sense from a business point of view as well. For example:

  • If you work on establishing your expertise in an area, well … people like to buy from experts.
  • Other websites and other media like to invite experts to write articles / be interviewed / etc. And that takes care of much of your link building which helps your rankings which increases your traffic.
  • Reviewing the behavior of your visitors and making design changes so they stay longer and/or buy more is common sense.

Have a read of Eric Enge’s 21 Reasons You Must Become an Expert if you’re still not fully persuaded.

Getting your SEO requirements in perspective

Given what I have said it would be very easy to conclude that you had better hire a room full of SEOers to sort everything else. However the amount of energy you need to put into the task of protecting or growing your Google rankings needs to be kept in perspective and depends greatly on your competitors.

If you owned a coffee shop in Dallas you would not need to start advertising nationwide because none of your competitors do. In the same way your activity on the internet just has to be bigger and/or smarter than that of your competitors … but not excessive.

Products that create no buzz

Now what I usually get at this point from some website owners is “OK wise guy, it makes sense but I sell screws and nails. People need screws and nails and they’ll buy them online all day long but they’re not going to share that with anyone on a social network or blog about it or do any of the things you say are important. My best hope is that someone on a DIY forum recommends me.”

Here, I disagree. I have yet to find an essential product, no matter how dull it is in nature, that can’t have a buzz. This is where your SEO company will need to prove their worth going forward by having one foot on the virtual world while wearing an effective marketing hat.

I have seen a company which sells flooring add hundreds of genuine Facebook fans to its profile within a few days. There is always a way … every product can have a twist no matter how shoulder shrugging it is at first sight.