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Our take on Google Hummingbird

Hummingbird - Infrared by fortherock, on Flickr

Google recently announced the release of their latest major update; ‘Hummingbird’. What’s particularly interesting about this update, though, is that they released it well over a month before they announced it – and, other than some minor ranking fluctuations, nobody noticed it roll out.

This isn’t a big change in the results, then. The way that pages are ordered, the recipe to win in competitive verticals, and the search results page itself hasn’t changed. It’s not generating the kind of mass hysteria and tectonic shifts which came with Panda, Penguin, and other recent updates. In fact, Google have described the update as being about ‘speed’ and ‘precision’,  in the context of the underlying platform rather than that of the results themselves.

This is a complete overhaul of Google’s underlying architecture and processes (of the same kind as the ‘Caffeine’ update in 2010) which will allow them to scale, future-proof, and turbo-charge the search results of tomorrow. The key focus of the update? Understanding what you’re actually searching for, not just what you type in the search box or say into your phone. Hummingbird claims to be able to interpret questions literally, and bring you the best answers, rather than the current behaviour – where they examine each individual word and simply find results which feature the text in question (and which, of course, have strong authority and social metrics).

Although this isn’t directly affecting anybody yet, we’re waiting for the penny to drop and to see what happens next. Speculation is that the primary utilisation of Hummingbird will be in voice search, which places the focus squarely on Mobile and Google Local – and by extension, Google Now. If your phone can work out what you want, rather than what you say, it makes it a lot easier to give you the ‘best restaurant in London’, or the ‘cheapest car insurance quote’ without relying on traditional ranking signals, and with the advantage of knowing pretty much everything about you, your behaviour, and your needs.

Google have talked about the concept of ‘Conversational Search’, which is part of how Knowledge Graph and Expert Article results are produced – where Google know what you need rather than just giving you a list of results. This is where Google aim to compete with Facebook and Siri in the mobile space, and this provides them with the platform to return consistently better results than the competition. Furthermore, with the upcoming integration of Google Now into Chrome devices, Google are clearly moving towards trying to anticipate your needs and provide you results outside of the conventional search experience. Results will be provided to you by context and connection, rather than just authority, and in many cases the traditional search results may disappear to be replaced with the best possible answer, options and companies for my query. It may be that I never visit your website, but that your content is delivered directly to my screen; and by winning enough mind-share, I might one day spend some money with you.

Brands, then, should be ensuring that they’re visible, prominent and compelling in ways and places that consumers are looking for answers. Having robust meta-data, schema mark-up and rich snippets, as well as optimised local listings and plenty of reinforcing off-site signals (links, citations, mentions and social signals) will be vital to being found for local and mobile queries. The only way that brands will find their way into the real-time world of consumer devices and to take advantage of all of Google’s new firepower is by deserving to be in that space by providing demonstrable value to users (where users doesn’t necessarily mean customers). Beyond this, brands need to connect to individuals, in a world where people don’t like connecting to brands. Utilising authorship and presenting key individuals who are demonstrably subject matter experts (though authored content), earning social currency which is explicitly attributed back to your own pages and properties, and providing content to user which is genuinely interesting, useful and compelling (hint: it’s not about what you sell, and it’s almost certainly off-brand) will help to ensure that, when the customer is in the market, the brands they’re connected to are the ones which turn up in their hand, on their satnav, and in their diaries (perhaps even without them ever performing a search).

Although the focus on mobile, local, and Now, we certainly shouldn’t ignore desktop search. Average search strings get longer every year as searchers gain experience and techniques mature (who searches for ‘car’ or ‘house’?), which means that more and more search queries look and feel like spoken questions. Having content which answers these questions, then, will be necessary to stay in the space. It’s also not hard, though, to imagine that few of the questions people are asking are directly about brands, their services, or their propositions. Most searches are about things, exploratory by nature, and are made by people who are researching – and by people who might find a piece of content interesting, but not necessarily be in the buying cycle or interested in your product. It doesn’t matter; these are the people you need to impress, compel, and get close to.

To wrap up… You don’t need to do anything about Hummingbird, and nothing’s changed. Tomorrow, however, you might find that your competitors and comparators, the aggregators, the communities, and Google themselves start taking market share by being more connected, more helpful, and more useful to the user at all stages of their relationship.

From passive research to evangelism and beyond, your brand needs to win the hearts and minds of your maximum possible audience in order to maintain mindshare; and the mechanic for doing this, is, as ever, through the production of exceptional content – because next time I need to renew my insurance, buy new clothes, take a trip, or use any other service (as an individual or as a business), only the truly customer-centric brands who put significant and genuine effort into producing valuable, useful and supportive resources will even show up on my device.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any quick fixes or easy first steps here – if any of this sounds like things that your brand can’t, or will struggle to do, then you’ll need to start to think about how you change your brand, or risk getting left behind. Authored content which helps users is a great place to start, and, frankly, you’ll struggle to get us to stop talking about it over the coming months.

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