Are You Still Playing Russian Roulette with Google?

Image of gun with one bullet in chamber

Yep, here we are once again … on the back side of another huge Google algorithm change wondering how it will impact SEO.

Every online publisher and her brother has since rushed to spill ink on the topic because we all want to know: how can we please Google?

Not like souless robotic spammers, of course. But like people who sincerely believe they deserve to rank highly (even if that becomes a less meaningful metric by the day). Because, well, think about it …

If we all knew the ins-and-outs of how Google ranks content, and if we knew which factors they use and the exact weight each carries in ranking, then all we’d have to do is just tick off our check list, publish the post, and bask in the light of steady traffic pouring in from our high rankings!

Life would be sublime. But it just doesn’t work that way.

Let me explain …

The simple truth about Google

Google shares very little about their algorithms. And we think that’s unfair.

But is it really? No.

Our obsession about the mechanics of Google search reveals something dark about ourselves: we are lazy and selfish.

We want to do the minimum amount of work for the maximum gain. This is why we love cheat sheets and check lists. (I’ve included a check list in this post, by the way, because I am human after all).

However, the funny bit about our endless quest to know how Google ranks pages is that the truth has always been right in front of us: do the hard work of knowing your customer inside and out, establish your authority, and deliver the high-quality content they need.

So here’s the deal: in the end, Hummingbird isn’t about you and me, the content creators. Hummingbird is all about the consumer

What is Google trying to do?

Imagine that you’ve encountered a machine. Nothing but a large, floating metal cube. You ask it, “Tell me about Da Vinci.”

“Why?” says the machine.

You blink. “Did you just ask me ‘why’?”

“Yes,” the machine says.

“Okay. Because we are traveling to Venice in the Fa — ”

“And you want know what famous sites to visit?”

” … eh. Yeah. Exactly.”

“And so you probably want to know about other painters from Venice as well, right?”

“Yeah, yeah. Right.”

“And would you care to know about famous musicians from Venice, too?”

“Eh, yeah, that would be great, too.”

“One moment please …”

That, my friends, is Google Search. In the year 2049. It is a prediction that might not be far off if the release of Google Hummingbird is any indication of where search is going.

Okay, so what exactly is Hummingbird?

Hummingbird is Google’s latest change to Search. Notice I said change, not update.

Hummingbird is unlike Panda and Penguin. With Hummingbird, Google has begun to completely overhaul search as we know it. Google removed the old engine and inserted a brand new one.

Fortunately it baked in components of past updates like Caffeine, Penguin, Panda, and 200 other ranking factors (including PageRank).

So what makes Hummingbird so special?

It’s supposed to be faster and more precise (hence the name “Hummingbird”) than the old search algorithm. But ultimately what it’s trying to do is make conversational search perfect.

In essence, it’s not about the words you use when searching … it’s all about the meaning of those words.

And why is Hummingbird so important?

Hummingbird claims to focus on user content versus individual search words. In the past Search looked at, for example, “playing roulette” as a string of fifteen characters in a particular order that resemble the words “playing roulette.”

From that position Google had to interpret your meaning, which can be sort of like dealing with a toddler.

“Milk,” the toddler says. He squeezes his tiny little fists.

“Oh, does baby want some milk?”

He shakes his head no.

“Baby spill milk?”

He shakes his head no.

“Baby want to milk goat?”

Baby bobs his head up and down like a maniac. “Milk! Milk!”

It takes one smart parent to ask the right question. And it will take one smart machine to do the same.

In this new breed of search engine, Hummingbird promises to look at your search queries as conversations. It will analyze your search queries from the past in hopes of uncovering what you mean when you search “how do I milk a goat” or “teach me how to play roulette and win.”

How things used to be …

Long ago search was gamed by people who threw up brief but keyword-dense articles to rank highly for particular phrases, because that was the way Google was set up.

For example, when you searched for “playing roulette,” Google thumbed through its index looking for articles that fit that profile and then delivered those pages — with the most keyword-dense, linked-to (but not necessarily quality) articles on top.

If you’ve been around the Internet a while, you’ve probably experienced just how painful reading such articles can be (as you keep stumbling over the very wooden phrase “playing roulette” throughout the 200-word article Google sent you to).

Quality wasn’t important. Only quantity. Quantity of keywords and quantity of links pointing to that page.

Panda and Penguin vaporized those sites. If you think that’s hyperbole, look at what happened to some of the most successful content farms after Panda.

Then authorship markup and Google+ introduced another important element to quality content: visible, authoritative online writers.

Why? Google understood that it’s probably pretty important to get a page from a recognized authority in roulette rather than some punk kid in Bosnia-Herzegovina who wants to capitalize on selling generic Viagra to casino players. But more on that in a minute.

… and how things will be now under Hummingbird

What Google is gunning for with Hummingbird is conversational search.

In a perfect world Google would love to be able to discover your intention when you type the words “playing roulette” into their rectangular little search box. Are you doing research on ways to kill yourself? Or do you mean the casino game?

In the past Google would’ve leaned towards the casino game since the suicidal variety was usually modified by the word “Russian.” And so they would have served up articles on casino roulette.

But what if you did want to know how to kill yourself (because you were a journalist covering a recent suicide) — and didn’t realize “Russian” should’ve been included. The spate of casino articles might have confused you.

That guessing game got a little better with Search Plus Your World (S+YW). By looking at your search history and location (if it was enabled), Google could make better guesses.

If your search history contained numerous sites on gambling and none on suicide then Google is going to consider the words “playing roulette” as entertainment. But if they find “suicide prevention” and “historical suicides in Sydney” in your history, then it might think you are interested in the fatal game of chance.

This guessing game on context is what is supposed to be improved with Hummingbird.

One way Hummingbird does this is by predicting that a search for “playing roulette” on a mobile device located in Reno should render up nearby casinos while the same search on a desktop is interpreted as a signal that you are looking for tutorials on the casino game (especially since you have a history of visiting roulette game sites).

We are getting closer and closer to “the metal cube” knowing (and anticipating) your intentions.

In other words, Hummingbird is getting closer to the the heart of semantic search: search results based upon meaning and context, not words.

David Amerland, author of Semantic Search, states it this way:

The best way to think of semantic search is like a search light that picks up all the different data nodes of the Web and follows them around creating a picture of how they link up, who they belong to, who created them, what else they created, who they are, who they were, and what they do. At its most basic level semantic search applies meaning to the connections between the different data nodes of the Web in ways that allow a clearer understanding of them than we have ever had to date.

If you’ve been paying attention you’ve noticed what’s going on …

We are getting further and further away from the unnatural keyword phrases (“milking goats”) and closer to the more natural intent of why we are searching in the first place (“how do I milk a goat without getting any in my eye?”).

Additional advances before Hummingbird

Another step in the right direction was the release of Google’s Authorship markup and Google+.

The combination of these two features allowed users to create an online profile that connected you to all of your online content (blog posts, podcasts, and so on) with a host of benefits:

  • Higher visibility in search
  • Higher clickthrough rates on your links in search results
  • Higher page views
  • Defense against plagiarism
  • Establishment of topical authority

In essence, these two developments elevated the role of the online writer.

Next came the Knowledge Graph — a Google project designed to make connections between the facts of the online world.

The Knowledge Graph allows you to discover that not only is da Vinci from Venice, but he’s the brains behind the Mona Lisa. You would also learn that he was a Renaissance painter. And then, because of Knowledge Graph, you could learn about more Renaissance painters, expanding your knowledge as you go down the rabbit hole.

Google is simply trying to intuit the direction of the conversation and kill the traditional sense of search ranking (Am I number one on the first page of results?), to boot.

Should Hummingbird impact your content strategy?

You are probably wondering how this impacts your content strategy, right? Well, it depends.

If you are lazy and selfish, then Hummingbird is a catastrophic blow to your strategy. As was Penguin. Panda. And so on. It’s surprising you are still at it. (Hey, playing Russian roulette doesn’t hurt you either … until it does.)

However, if you’re a hard-working and selfless content creator, then your strategy probably won’t change that much.

Instead of ranking for keywords, your goal is to build topical authority around a page and a site, and drive traffic to that page and site so that Google can deliver curated, validated, and verified pages.

It’s about building brand authority, which is why who you are matters as much as what you create.

But how do you do that? Well, to be frank, it’s back to the basics (and here’s that handy checklist I warned you about):

  • Create high-quality, useful content (including in-depth articles) to deliver meaningful value to your audience, which you can measure by how much time a visitor spends on your pages and site and what they share across the social web.
  • Create a website that provides top-notch online experience in terms of design, speed, and navigation.
  • Create a sterling, exciting reputation that people talk about in the press, on blogs, and on the social web.
  • Create thoughtful, original content that attracts and holds attention and encourages people to share across the social web.
  • Engage with your audience through comments, guest posting, and social web interaction.
  • Establish and protect a credible, transparent, and likeable identity that proves you are an authority.
  • Connect all of your online content through authorship markup.
  • Set and guide the online conversation with challenging, consistent content.

Here’s what Hummingbird boils down to: stop chasing algorithms.

Instead, hunt down your ideal customer and get to know them inside and out. What’s their problem they are trying to solve? And why?

Once you can answer those questions, then you need to create the solution: create and deliver the content they are desperately seeking.

But it has to be the best content if you want it to draw attention and traffic and spread across the web — and ultimately rank.

See, Google can’t deliver high quality content unless it’s online. Google is not a content creator. It is a content organizer. And content that is presented in the best way possible will win.

And by the way, this doesn’t eliminate keyword research. It simply modifies how you approach that research.

The bottom line …

We are a long way from a floating metal cube with the brain of an inquisitive human … although Google is getting there, and hoping to get there sooner rather than later.

But it doesn’t really matter if you’re an authoritative content marketer.

If your M.O. has always been to create high-quality content that people find useful, share, comment on, and link to, then you fall comfortably into the hands of changes like Hummingbird … which is a good thing. You are on a relentless quest to deliver meaningful value to the consumer, like Google.

So, keep it up all you hard-working and selfless content marketers … and just keep on building your authority with insanely useful content.

About the author

Demian Farnworth

Demian Farnworth is a Senior Writer for Copyblogger Media. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

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