Last fall, Google rolled out one of its largest changes of the past decade - an entirely new search algorithm, nicknamed "Hummingbird." In contrast to the past updates, Panda and Penguin, which modified existing search algorithms and affected roughly 2 to 5 percent of search queries, Hummingbird is believed to have affected nearly 90 percent of all queries and dramatically changed the way the engine processes user requests.
The impetus behind Hummingbird comes down to context. In the past, Google's algorithms processed user queries according to each individual word in the query string. As an example, a past search for the keyword phrase "hotels in Chicago" would require Google to parse through its index and find the best matches containing the words "hotels," "in" and "Chicago."
But now that users are more likely to enter complete questions -- for example, "what is the best hotel in Chicago?" -- into the engine, Google wants to understand the context behind the query in order to serve up the best possible results. Did you mean the best hotel in terms of price point or luxury level? Are you on the move in Chicago and looking for the best hotel nearest to your location? Hummingbird attempts to determine the context for your question, although it isn't immediately clear whether it does so successfully in all cases.
What is clear, though, is that there are some tweaks you'll want to make to your SEO strategy in response to this update -- especially if you're still using "old school" techniques. Here are a few of the strategies you'll want to incorporate into your day-to-day SEO routine:
Don't do keyword research -- do market research. As Google continues to evolve, it's clear that traditional keyword research -- as in, the measurement of volume and competition metrics for individual, granular search queries -- is on its way out. Google now cares less about whether you've optimized each individual page on your site to a particular keyword and more about whether your page's content answers the question presented by the search user.
So instead of spending a ton of time trying to find the magical combination of keyword metrics that'll guarantee you natural search traffic, brainstorm the questions your users are asking about your industry and brand. Then, make sure your website's content clearly answers these questions in a way that's easily understood by the search engines and provides extra value to your visitors.
Incorporate questions into your content. As you begin to incorporate the questions you've come up with into your site's content, there are a few new guidelines you'll want to keep in mind:
Unless your content is poorly written (and at risk of suffering from a future Panda penalty), there's no need to go back and rewrite every page you've ever created to target user questions instead of keywords. Add on extra content if you need to, but don't risk messing with content that's already performing successfully.
There's no need to follow a "one page, one question" rule, as many page managers used to do with traditional keywords. Pages can answer multiple questions, as long as the search engines can make sense of your content and each question is answered fully for your visitors.
Try to provide your readers with as much information as possible. Plenty of SEO managers are concerned about the potential of Google's new information card feature -- which displays answers to questions posed directly in the sidebar of the results page -- to steal away traffic that would otherwise arrive from search clickthroughs. While this feature is currently only available in Chrome browsers, there's no reason to think it won't be rolled out more widely in the future. To prevent possible traffic poaching, give your pages so much substance that it's worth your readers' time to take the extra step of visiting your site.
The more content, the better. Posting new content to your site on a regular schedule has been an SEO recommendation for some time, but with Google Hummingbird in place, this tweak becomes even more important. The more content you have, the more questions your site answers -- and the more likely it is to appear in the contextual search results. For maximum impact, focus on adding new content that explicitly answers user questions -- including "how to" posts, FAQs, process tutorials and other similar pieces.
Beyond these few tweaks, keep following the SEO best practices that have been put in place for this post-Panda, post-Penguin era. Build great content that accumulates high quality, relevant backlinks naturally on its own. Use a responsive design that makes it easy for readers to find information from you wherever they are. And above all, stop trying to outright manipulate the search rankings. Think long term about the direction Google appears to be going and make your site as attractive as possible by playing by the rules and being a good webmaster.