As the sophistication of search algorithms continues to increase, search engines are improving their understanding of what their users are looking for with their inquiries. Prior to replacing its search methodology with the Hummingbird algorithm in 2013, search results typically showed results that had a high percentage of the same keywords included in users’ inquiries. While the pages that were returned based on keyword matches generally reflected some relevance to the search, there were also results that had nothing to do with the nature of the inquiry.


Two of the primary reasons for these unrelated results were black hat techniques that were used to trick the early algorithms into granting high ratings, as well as words that were spelled the same but had different meanings, known as homonyms. An example of a homonym is the word “lead”, which can either be a noun as in the metal or a verb as in “to guide”. An inquiry such as “lead dog” could list sculptures of dogs made of the metal as well as dog teams in the Iditarod race. Refining the search to “what is a lead dog Iditarod” could still return mixed results. With the implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm, searches provided results based on the context of the inquiry, rather than trying to find pages with identical keywords.


The change to contextual search, in addition to providing a higher percentage of relevant results for all users, was also influenced by the more conversational nature of inquiries from mobile device users. When voice commands are used, it’s more natural to ask a question than limiting inquiries to a few key words. As the search phrases became longer, keyword-based algorithms struggled to return listings that answered the questions that were being posed, which required follow-on searches and lead to a less than optimal user experience.


For businesses that have not changed the foundation of their SEO initiatives to the new search methodology, previously high rankings are likely to start falling, if they haven’t already. The key to success in context-based search is to modify content so that it answers the questions posed verbally by mobile users. As a simple example, a searcher may pose the question “Where is a pizza place in Anytown?” Content that answers that question, which would earn a higher search listing, would include something like “Jack’s Pizza is located at 123 Main Street in Anytown.”


As Google and the rest of the search engines try to deliver the best user experience possible, the focus is on eliminating listings that don’t deliver the answers sought by searchers. To that end, the listings that are presented will increasingly address the full context of inquiries with the delivery of specific answers. In this environment the SEO campaigns that are modified to answer questions, rather than match keywords to searches, will deliver website and storefront visits which will drive revenues.  

When Google announced on September 26th that it had released an update titled Hummingbird in late August 2013, the biggest surprise was that, despite the broad scope of the algorithm changes, the effects had not been noticed during the approximately five weeks between the rollout and the announcement. Considering that the previous two updates, code named Panda and Penguin had caused dramatic and sudden negative changes in page rankings for a wide variety of websites, the new update had slipped in under the radar which provided a second surprise in that the modifications that were introduced were considered to be the most sweeping changes in the search engine’s ranking formula since the release of the Caffeine update in 2009.
The reason for the lack of impact on rankings, as explained by Google representatives in the days following the announcement, is that the modifications in the new update focus on improving search results for two types of queries that are growing rapidly as a whole but do not represent large search numbers for individual components; complex queries that are conducted by voice command on mobile devices. Prior to the update, Google’s process for assessing spoken or keyed searches focused on keywords while ignoring other words in the query. Hummingbird changes that process by assessing each word in the context of the question. One of the primary outcomes of this change is that searches using long tail keywords will generate results that are far more likely to present relevant content.      
For ecommerce businesses, the Hummingbird update provides a huge opportunity to capitalize on two consumer behaviors simultaneously:
* The tendency of consumers to purchase items that they have researched on their mobile devices – According to a Google/Nielsen survey, more than 4 out of 5 consumers submit product queries with the intention of making a purchase within 24 hours.
* The typical online search process of consumers – Consumers generally start product searches with shorter search terms and then lengthen them as they get closer to making a purchase. By generating content that delivers solutions/answers to long tail queries, a business can become very visible on results pages at precisely the point at which consumers are preparing to make a purchase.     
The companies that will be in the best position to capitalize on these converging trends will be generating content that is recognized as a solution to consumers’ search queries. It’s a huge opportunity, and Google wants to help.
As far as major algorithm updates go, Google’s Hummingbird update rolled out with far more subtlety than the previous two, titled Panda and Penguin. In fact, Google had implemented the Hummingbird changes 5 weeks before announcing the modification and no one had noticed. The primary reason for this relative non-event when compared to the aftermath of the Panda and Penguin updates is that, rather than targeting black hat SEO practices and punishing sites that had used them to gain high search engine rankings, the Hummingbird algorithm change fine tunes results from two types of search; mobile and long tail queries.
Essentially a modification designed to analyze search terms in context rather than basing returns on keywords alone, the change caters to the more conversational and complex queries entered via voice commands on mobile devices. Typically, these queries are also longer in length, hence the focus on long tail search terms as well.     
The algorithm change presents two takeaways regarding content:
* Content must mobile device-friendly – Google has been very clear about the importance of mobile device-friendly content, with the Hummingbird update serving as another reminder. If you are currently running a website that formats content in the same way regardless of the device, consider an upgrade that implements responsive web design architecture. This approach automatically reformats your web pages according to the screen size of the device providing access to optimize each user’s experience.
* Content must provide value, solutions and/or answers for keyword-related queries – Now that Google can understand questions in context, it’s logical that the search engine will have a better grasp of the best answers to those questions. Instead of pages that appear relevant to a search because they have relevant keywords sprinkled through the text, the pages will be returned for the related query must now deliver specific answers to the questions being posed.
Google indicated a “Mobile first” priority a few years ago and continues to make changes as these devices increase their share of internet access. By building a mobile-friendly web presence that is supported by high value content, your site will be positioned at the busy intersection of mobile device access and longer search queries. 

Much like personal relationships, when one person is signaling what they want while the other ignores it, the connection gradually...