What We Actually Know About Hummingbird and Keywords

on under Search Engine Optimization.

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When people speak with certainty, it's reassuring. It lulls us into the comfortable feeling that somebody knows what's going on, somebody's an expert, and if we just listen to them, we'll know what we're doing. But sometimes it's impossible to speak with certainty without being dishonest, and disconcerting as it might be, this is exactly what's happening with Google Hummingbird.

What we know about Hummingbird is surprisingly sparse, short of one very important change. Everybody keeps saying that it means keywords matter less. I believe the opposite is true: major keywords matter more.

Let me explain.

SEO Confusion and Press Release Journalism

All the major keyword tools warned of a major update circa August 21st. Moz saw a major spike on the 20th, while SERPs, SERP Metrics, and Algroo saw major spikes on the 21st. For some reason, most of the major SEO outlets keep saying that there haven't been any major winners or losers yet, but the article I just linked to is flooded with comments from webmasters who gained or lost significant traffic on or soon after August 20th: a total of 425 comments.

Google failed to acknowledge the change until their birthday, when they spilled the beans that Google's core algorithm had been replaced, and that the change affects a whopping 90 percent of queries.

SEOs wasted no time repeating what Google had told them about the algorithm change, which was little more than "it's designed to interpret conversational search queries." From there, we heard a slew of advice and pretty much no data to back it up.

As an industry, we haven't moved very far past this state of affairs in the three months since Hummingbird went live.

Thankfully, at least a few professionals have come forward with some revealing anecdotes. While that doesn't quite count as data, it's better than simply regurgitating what Google has told us and drawing conjecture from that.

From those anecdotes, a fairly consistent story is emerging.

All Those Purple Links

If I may share an anecdote of my own, it seems damn near impossible for me to do any kind of search related to Hummingbird without seeing the following result somewhere on the front page:

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Now, if you want to know why the word "example" is bolded in the search result, it's because this was my search query:

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That's right. Google is playing thesaurus, and replacing the phrase "case study" with "example." Now, it's not like Google wasn't doing this before, but I get the sense that after Hummingbird's introduction, it's been doing this quite a bit more often than it was before.

The thing is, in this particular circumstance, this isn't especially helpful. This isn't "semantic search." This isn't Google doing a better job of interpreting my search query. Yes, sometimes an example is the same thing as a case study. But anybody who speaks English knows that when you say the words "for example," you're probably not going to be sharing a case study. In fact, there's a good chance you're going to be sharing a hypothetical.

Tell that to Google:

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A common narrative here is that search results are turning up for keywords not found in the query. Jon DiPietro recently shared a case study of his own revealing the impact of Hummingbird on a client of his:

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In late August, their competitor's rankings for "machine alignment" dropped, while those of their own blog post went to the top. The thing is, the blog post is entitled "How to Align Machines," and it never once uses the phrase "machine alignment" in the content.

Meanwhile, Michael Martinez has shared my frustration with certain aspects of the search engine as it stands. He found that what is most likely Hummingbird is making it difficult to find anything new in the search results:

It's in DISCOVERY that I am seeing turmoil and confusion. When I want to find something DIFFERENT from what Google has been showing me (for days, weeks, months, YEARS) I have to write the most convoluted queries and click through to deeper results. Oftentimes I have to fill out the stupid CAPTCHA because Google thinks I am a script pulling down its listings (mostly I'm just pulling out what's left of my hair).

... But try searching for a current trending topic about someone or something in the news and suddenly Google can't find more than a handful of Websites. Is that counter-intuitive or what? I really have to see up to four results from the same domain on every page in the SERPs because Google can't find anyone else talking about Tom Hiddleston?

Many SEO professionals, who shall remain nameless, have wrongly interpreted the change that Hummingbird is bringing about. Several of them claimed that since Hummingbird interprets queries, long tail will become more important, and smaller sites will show up more often. I don't know how that logic is supposed to work.

Hummingbird means that the long tail matters less. It means that long queries will get interpreted as nothing more than long variations of main keywords. That's why I keep getting directed to Search Engine Land's FAQ on Hummingbird, no matter what search query I use, no matter how hard I try to find something different.

Several non-SEOs have also complained about the fact that Google is flat out ignoring keywords and flooding the front page with results from the same domain. None of these changes are creating mass user uproar, but they are the closest thing we have to data about Hummingbird at the moment.

So, what do we really know about Hummingbird at the moment? Put simply: the same pages seem to show up for a much wider variety of search queries, Google is playing thesaurus more often, and Google is ignoring more keywords that it doesn't think are relevant to your query.

All of this leads us to a pretty striking and counter-intuitive conclusion. Far from meaning that keywords don't matter, it seems to me that Hummingbird actually cares a lot more about keywords. It's a bit similar to the way that Penguin makes links more important by disregarding links it doesn't think matters.

Hummingbird makes major keywords matter more, because it ignores less common keywords, or transforms them into more common keywords.

"Case study" is just too obscure for Hummingbird-powered Google, so it replaces it with "example."  If a long and convoluted search phrase returns the same results as a search for main keywords, it means that the main keywords increasingly matter the most.

It's almost like Google is taking your search queries and replacing them with more popular search queries, and returning the results for the more popular query.

Watch and be amazed:

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SERIOUSLY GOOGLE?!

If you want to rank for a long tail keyword, you need to rank for the main keyword. That, I believe, is the real lesson here.

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  • Carl Strohmeyer

    Interesting observations.

    While I too have been changing some links to long tails, as well as removing many embedded reference links, your observations make more sense from what too have observed.

    For instance in my field of expertise (aquarium & pond UV sterilization), I am seeing Google interpreting my search for the scientific process of "Aquarium UV Sterilization" and come up with related products, but products that none the less do NOT carry out the "PROCESS" of UV Sterilization.

    The interesting point is often these products are sold by Amazon.

    Another dirty little secret is many links I have made over the years to an aquarium chemistry/treatments company's information page have been hijacked by Amazon via re-directs. Further evidence of gaming the search by Amazon while Google looks the other way

    Needless to say, I will not be purchasing a single item off from Amazon

    http://cstrohmeyer.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/google-penguin-spam-is-matt-cutts-is-a-liar/

    • Carter Bowles

      Absolutely. I've never been partial to the somewhat conspiratorial mindset that Google is biased against small businesses or anything like that, but Hummingbird has been one of those changes that really is pushing things in that general direction.

      It's not that it's actually favoring the brands, it's just that it thinks its smart enough to replace your search query with a more popular query. And that might be convenient when you're talking to your phone, but it's a huge pain when you're trying to conduct a search for something a bit more specific.

      Ultimately, that drives traffic away from sites that target more specific information, and toward sites addressing more general topics. I do hope they work the kinks out of it. In the meantime, I think I liked query-driven search more than this newfangled "interpretive" search.