Hummingbirds, Penguins & Pandas...Oh my!
In late August, Google launched Hummingbird, one of its most aggressive changes since the company released Caffeine in 2010. Unlike Panda and Penguin -- which have gotten a great deal of press during the last year -- Hummingbird isn't just an update, it's an entirely new algorithm. I believe that this new algorithm represents the next phase in the evolution of what we can expect from Google's SERP (Search Engine Results Page).
One Search Engine - Many Different Faces
For a long time, Google's SERP was very basic - it just returned a list of websites that matched the visitors search query.
Over time, the SERP became more involved, with ads at the top and along the sidebar. Recently, however, Google has taken the look of its SERP to an entirely new level, adding new features like the Knowledge Graph and the Carousel.
Knowledge Graph is part of the semantic-search trend, where information from a variety of sources is analyzed to make educated guesses about the searcher's intent. Using the Knowledge Graph, Google adds information to the right-side of the SERP that is related to the search query. This is designed to provide connections to other items Google is seeing related to the query, so that the user gets more meaningful results from their search.
The data from its Knowledge Graph is enabling Google to augment the SERP with things like the Carousel. This is a visual representation of related information that appears at the top of the SERP. In addition to giving users more information, it makes the SERP much more dynamic and visually appealing.
Cutting Out the Middle Man
Search engines have typically been somewhat of an intermediary. Visitors use them to find other websites. Knowledge Graph, the Carousel and other changes seem to indicate that Google wants its SERP to be destination. For example, Google is now starting to answer basic questions in the Knowledge Graph, as well as providing lists that are regularly searched.
The most recent link in the evolution of SERPs and search engines is conversational search - a driving motivation behind Google's Hummingbird. People will continue to become more reliant on mobile devices - from smart phones to web-enabled cars. This dependency is going to change the way we search for websites and information. Currently, most people still tend to enter information into a search engine via a keyboard. This results single words and short phrases (known as head terms in search-engine-optimization) being entered into a search engine - that's because we naturally think of the briefest way to get to the point. However, conversational search seems more formal, like the way we talk. Most people don't bark two word requests at Siri. Rather, we try to be polite and as clear as possible, generally forming complete sentences.
In addition, with conversational search, it will be very difficult to for Siri (or Google voice search) to offer up autocomplete.
A Shift Towards Long-Tail Searches
Conversational search should mean that long-tail searches - searches with 4 or more keywords - should start to see more traffic in the future. It also means that sites with more content should do better because they will have more words for Google to index and use when searching for the right websites to present to its users.
How this Change Affects Me
Seeing all these changes, the obvious question is how does this affect my web strategy? The answer is not so obvious. First, we don't recommend that you chase the algorithm changes. Change is a constant for Google. In 2013, they seemed to average more than two significant algorithm updates monthly, as well as numerous minor tweaks throughout the year. If you try to make modifications based on one change, you may be positioning your site to get hurt as soon as Google makes another change. Second, we recommend following Google's and Bing's webmaster guidelines. These guidelines give you an excellent blueprint for managing your site in a way that is going to help you safely navigate continuing evolution of Google's algorithm changes. Third, don't panic or jump to conclusions. If your site's search traffic has taken a dip in recent weeks, it may or may not be related to Google's launch of Hummingbird (or another change to its algorithm). Loss in traffic can be caused by many different things including pages not loading correctly, issues with your host server or even the Google Analytics code not loading correctly.
Things to check
When trying to diagnose a problem, it's important to look at a variety of sources. Use Google and Bing Webmaster Tools to identify crawl & sitemap issues and other warnings. Review Google Analytics to see what landing pages had the greatest decrease in visits. Use tools such as the Firebug page speed tool. Also, take a look at your website's HTML code to make sure you have your Google Analytics code set up properly.
The bottom line
Hummingbird is just the latest of many Google search algorithm updates. Each update has affected users and site administrators differently, but the intention is always the same - to improve the accessibility of valuable information. If your site contains valuable information, and especially if it contains more valuable information than competing sites, the Hummingbird update should be music to your ears.