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: