Google's Hummingbird update: does this change everything?

Content, search engines and the never-ending quest for readers.

Image courtesy of Michael Elliott at

There was a seismic shift recently in the world of search-engine optimisation (SEO). The strange thing is that nobody felt it when it actually happened.

Google’s Hummingbird update to its search algorithm is one of the biggest in years. But by the time it was announced in late September, it had already been in place for over a month. It’s just that nobody noticed. So is it a major change or a minor one? A complete overhaul, or just some fine-tuning?

It’s both. And neither. Everything changes, and nothing does.

Let me explain.

Tail wagging the dog?

Back in 2004, Chris Anderson popularised the term ‘long tail’ in Wired magazine. Long-tail queries were simply ones that were more detailed and explicit. So you didn’t search for ‘copywriter’ but ‘technology copywriter in Cambridge’ (as a random example).

Specific searches meant specific results, so everybody got to work creating content that matched these long-tail queries. ‘Gateway pages’ abounded: ones whose names matched the queries that people were typing into search engines. And some marketers created faster than others, and reaped the rewards.

But it was still all based on keywords.

Keywords are still important. But at the end of August they became just a little less important to Google. For that’s when they started looking at what people are really searching for, and trying to ‘intuit’ (yes, I hate that word too) what they really want.

Hummingbird focuses on the meaning behind the words, which is especially important with the rise of the mobile internet. When more and more people are speaking – rather than typing – their searches, it’s essential to look beyond the keywords and see what they actually mean.

The phrase on everybody’s lips is ‘conversational search’.

Google just last week stepped this up a gear, with the announcement of Android 4.4 (codename Kitkat) which will allow users to simply say ‘OK Google’ from any screen to bring up Google Now, and let them speak a search.

So what changes?

Well everything on the back end, but not that much on the front end. For website creators and editors (and copywriters, of course) quality content is as important as it’s ever been. The sort of content that delivers value, educates and informs people, gives them what they’re looking for, and that they’ll link to. And like (as in Facebook Like).

Keywords are still important, though their individual power is diminished. Instead, it’s the combination of keywords – into key phrases, and meaning beyond the phrases – that counts.

A fine line

SEO is, and has always been, a delicate balancing act. Too many keywords, and you’ll attract the search engines but put off readers. Push it a bit further, and you’ll put off both (and be blacklisted by the former).

Longer is better, some say, when it comes to search-engine copy.

And it it is, but only when you have something interesting to say. You can ruin perfectly good copy by padding it out, or by repeating the same thing in the hope of getting some SEO brownie points. But it rarely works that way. Copy should be as long as it needs to be, and be relevant. Longer doesn’t mean more relevant.

So what’s my advice? Well I’m still saying what I’ve always said:

  • Don’t stuff it with keywords.
  • Stop when you’ve said what you have to say.
  • Use specific key phrases rather than keywords.
  • Put key phrases in your H1, H2 etc. headings.
  • Make sure you use your meta tags (title, description, keywords etc.) and again, keep them specific and relevant.
  • Come to that, make everything specific and relevant.

The art of good copy – and good SEO copy – is that it gets the message across as clearly as possible, as quickly as possible. Use headings, sub-headings, boxes and bullet points to ‘chunk’ the copy. Don’t overload any one page, but let people branch off for the in-depth stuff.

In brief, think like a reader and write like a reader. And above all, give people what they want – or better still, think one step ahead and anticipate what they want.

Which is just what Hummingbird does.

Find out more:

DIY SEO? Yes, you can.

It’s a lot easier than you think.

“I don’t care what it takes, as long as it gets me to the top” said the woman with the big hair and the satin blouse, jabbing at me with her glass of sauvignon blanc.

Networking was never so much fun.

I took a precautionary step back to give her room to express herself. And just in time, as her glass described a wide arc, narrowly missing my Sunday-best jacket.

She was in full flight. But she wasn’t talking about career advancement: she’d already reached the top in her profession. Instead, she’d set herself a new mountain to climb.

Search-engine rankings.

She wanted to be number one on Google, she said, with steely-eyed determination.

Who doesn’t?

I let her expatiate a little more.

“Keywords!” she barked, like Archimedes in his bathtub. “Keywords are the key.”

I surreptitiously drained my mineral water into a pot plant. Then, wiggling my empty glass, I quickly made good my escape.

The next day, I couldn’t get that phrase out of my head: ‘I don’t care what it takes’. For that pretty much sums up some people’s approach to SEO. That and keywords, of course.

Bung in those keywords, then add a few more. Then, one for the road. And maybe just another teensy little one for luck.

Then, get your web people to hack away at the back end so you’ve got every chance on your side. And hey presto! It works. People come to your site.

But quickly leave again.


Because spiders aren’t people. Search-engine spiders, that is. While we’re all sleeping soundly in our beds, those virtual arachnids are running all over our sites, seeing how they square up to the Google algorithm of interestingness.

Bingo, they say. Lots of keywords. Let’s move this up to number one.

Damn, they say (the readers). Lots of keywords. Let’s close this site and go somewhere that doesn’t insult our intelligence.

You see the problem. And it’s just the first of many when it comes to search-engine optimisation.

Think of a number – any number

Search-engine optimisation isn’t a science – it’s an art. And as such, it’s priceless.

A while back, a client of mine shopped around for some quotes on SEO. £300 a month, he was confidently told by the first company. That’ll see you right.

Not bad, he thought, when he worked out that he could lop it off his substantial advertising budget.

He continued his round of calls.

£3,000 a month, said the next. £950 said the one after that. Then £1,650.

And finally, £175.

All for the same service: putting him on page 1 of Google. He decided to take a break and consider his options.

So which one did he go for in the end? The most expensive? The cheapest? The one in the middle (the classic choice)?

None of them.

Instead, he climbed online, found a free course, and optimised his site on his own. Saving himself almost three grand. Or 175 quid. Whatever.

The point is, it wasn’t that difficult.

Years ago, I heard the boss of an airline answering an interviewer who’d asked him what he attributed his ‘Best airline to the Far East’ award to (the latest in a string of six straight awards). What was it that set him apart from the rest?

“It’s not one thing we get right,” he said slowly and deliberately.

“It’s all the little things.”

From little acorns

And that’s the story of SEO too. Cramming your copy full of keywords will keep our multi-footed insects happy, but put off your potential clients. So make it just part of your search-engine strategy – and use it sparingly.

Get all the other little things right, and you’ll be flying high in the rankings too.

And here’s the scoop: you can do a lot of those little things yourself.

There’s no definitive, must-follow, sure-fire, one-size-fits-all recipe for SEO success. But here are some of my top recommendations:

  • Content: add more copy regularly. Search engines love sites that change and develop. Sites that are static will never bring readers back, so make sure your site grows, expands and adds value (through blogs, forums, articles, news stories).
  • Inbound links. These show how popular you are out there in cyberspace. Ask people in your network to link to you. You’ll be surprised how many will say yes, especially if you do the same for them.
  • The nuts and bolts. Freaked out by the prospect of looking ‘under the hood’ of your site? Don’t be. Technical doesn’t have to mean scary. Get in touch with your inner geek – you might just enjoy it. And once you’ve learned about Alt tags, filenames, titles, descriptions and keywords, you’ll be able to fine-tune your site like a pro.
  • Divide and conquer: don’t try to cram everything into one page. Subdivide your site. Create pages that are optimised for a specific search term rather than trying to use one page to cover all products, services and client types.
  • Be patient: if you want to be top of the pops by next week, you might as well not start. If you’re thinking longer term (3-6 months) then you’re far less likely to give up. Going up the listings takes time.
  • Never stand still. Congratulations! You’ve got to page one of Google. Now get back to work. Yes, really. SEO is not a destination – it’s a journey. If you stop when you’ve reached your goal, and everybody else keeps moving on, you’ll be left behind before you know it.
  • Think like a reader. What do you like to find at the top of the Google list when you search for a specific term? And why should a potential reader be any different? Give your reader relevant copy, with enough – but not too many – keywords. Write for them first, and our furry six-legged friends second. People buy, spiders don’t. Never forget it.

Happy optimising.

(And next time you’re at a networking event, if you see a woman with big hair, a satin blouse and a love of keywords, make sure you stand next to a pot plant.)

Find out more:

  • Class act: don’t miss this free SEO course run by Mississippi-based J. Walker (aka ‘Cricket’). An absolute must if you’re serious about doing your own SEO. Sign up here.
  • Seek and you shall find: before you start SEO’ing, make sure you know what keywords people are searching on. The Google AdWords Keyword Tool and Good Keywords v3 will  tell you everything you need to know.