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Things, not strings: How Google’s new Hummingbird algorithm sets the stage for the future of mobile search

Image Credit: Flickr: mikebaird

While Google has changed how it updates its search algorithm over the years, one thing has remained constant:  a whole lot of ensuing backlash from search engine optimization (SEO) experts

Hummingbird, Google’s latest update, is no exception. Officially launched last week, the new algorithm represents the biggest change to Google’s search functionality in 10 years — a fact that, perhaps understandably, has gotten more than a few SEO experts worked up.

But Hummingbird is more than SEO — and it’s also more than just search. Here are a few takeaways.

It’s all about mobile

One of the most telling things about Google’s recent updates is that the company chose to illustrate them with images of its mobile app, not its desktop site. That’s no accident. More than anything else, Google over the past few years has been focused on making it easier for you to pull out your phone, ask Google a question, and get your answer as quickly as possible. Hummingbird is just an extension of that.

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This shift in focus comes as a result of some very clear trends. Mobile users need search results faster, and they need them to be immediately relevant. As we’ve noted before, the more mobile and less interface-heavy a form factor is, the less tolerant people are of bad experiences and unhelpful or spammy search results. This is as true for smartphones as it is for upcoming devices like Google Glass.

This, again, is why Google’s focus on voice search is so important, and why it’s so intent on making it easier for users to have conversations with its search engine, Siri-style.

To sum it up, it looks like this:

  1. Mobile is the future, so Google should be attuned to answering search queries in the most mobile-friendly way.
  2. People tend to be conversational with their mobile searches (“Where can I buy a new pair of underwear?”)
  3. Ergo, the future of Google search is mobile-focused and question-oriented.

It’s about meaning, not just keywords

Core to what Google is doing with Hummingbird is a shift in focus away from keywords and towards intent and semantics, which are infinitely more relevant to users. While the Google of a decade ago was focused on delivering search results based solely on queries, the Google of today is drawing insights from a variety of other signals — location, social connections, and even your previous searches.

In other words, stuffing your webpages with SEO-friendly keywords isn’t going to cut it anymore. Or, as Google search guru Matt Cutts likes to put it, the Google of the future “is about things, not strings.”

It’s a natural evolution in search

Hummingbird is a part of Google’s natural evolution away from pure search and more towards predictive intelligence and natural language processing. If you want to understand where Google wants to go, take a look at Google Now, which pulls together data from all over to deliver you information that you didn’t know you needed.

That idea, coupled with the always-listening, and always-present Google Glass, should give you a pretty clear idea of how Google wants you to interact with it in the future: constantly, quickly, and transparently.

There aren’t any clear losers…yet

What’s funny about Hummingbird is, unlike other recent Google algorithm updates, there aren’t any clear losers this time around (at least as far as people can determine so far).

“No one seems to have generally lost traffic, unlike some other algorithmic changes, which often produce vocal ‘losers’ and silent ‘winners,'” SearchEngineLand’s Danny Sullivan told VentureBeat by email.

Consider the results of 2011’s Panda update, which was all about lowering the rank of so-called “low-quality sites,” some of which saw their traffic cut by as much as 50 percent. Hummingbird, in contrast, is pretty harmless.

While SEO experts are still trying to figure out whether the arrival of Hummingbird means they’ll have to change their strategies, Sullivan says the general SEO advice remains the same: “Have good, descriptive content, and you should be doing all you can be doing to tap into long-tail searches,” he wrote.

SEO consultant Andrew Shotland, puts it slightly differently.

“Hummingbird is forcing website owners to ask, ‘How can I answer questions that customers are asking Google?’ This is really no different from what SEO people are already recommending,” he told VentureBeat.

More information:

Google's innovative search technologies connect millions of people around the world with information every day. Founded in 1998 by Stanford Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google today is a top web property in all major glob... read more »

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