Prior to Google’s implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm in the second half of 2013, search engine optimization and delivering a positive user experience with published content were distinctly different practices. Despite Google’s mission to surface high value content, its algorithms were easily manipulated with SEO tricks that didn’t necessarily deliver the information that the search engine users were looking for. At the same time, content that delivered relevant information often earned lower rankings than poorly written articles that prioritized packing in keywords over adding value.
Hand it to Google, the search engine has stayed true to its commitment to deliver improved user experiences and is now far less vulnerable to manipulative practices. Its ranking algorithm now factors a variety of signals that result from positive user experiences, including:
Links from authority sites – Content that contains valuable source material, topic-relevant information or delivers a positive user experience in general can earn links from authority sites to provide additional information or to be cited as a reference. These links carry an increasing amount of weight in the ranking algorithms due to the quasi-vetting process from originating authority sites. This is a completely different ranking methodology than the one which rewarded web pages that had thousands of spammy backlinks purchased for a few pennies each.
Social actions – When content is posted to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, user can elect to share that material with their friends and/or followers. Sharing or liking posted content is referred to as a social action, which is an indication that the content delivers a positive user experience, whether it’s entertaining, informative or a combination of the two. Steady and/or increasing social actions with specific web pages can then boost rankings due to the implied legitimacy of independent referrals.
Active and positive comment threads – Quality content draws engagement in the form of active commentary threads. Content that is generating shares and likes will also elicit commentary, with the actions reinforcing each other when being weighed by search algorithms. While these reinforcing actions are great for SEO campaigns, they are equally capable of driving higher rankings for negative content, such as news stories.
In today’s SEO campaigns, manipulating the algorithms has become increasingly difficult. This is due in part to the growing sophistication in algorithm methodology that can detect spammy links and content. It is also due to the evolution in the way people communicate and share information on the web. The paradigm change now forces SEO and content distribution campaigns to focus on the same primary goal; delivering a positive user experience.
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.
Despite the fact that local listings have basically finished their move from the Yellow Pages to the web, many local businesses are still satisfied with the idea that having a website will get them in front of the maximum number of potential customers. While this mistake probably resulted in missed opportunities when searches via PC ruled the day, it is magnified today as mobile searches now outnumber those executed on PCs.
The opportunity presented by mobile device users for local businesses is highlighted in a variety of studies, particularly one between Google, Ipsos MediaCT and Purchased, which assessed smart phone behavior with over 5,000 users. That study found that 50 percent of mobile device users who search for local businesses end up visiting a physical location within one day. Another study found that 46 percent of searchers use their mobile devices exclusively when doing research on products and services. The net result for local businesses is that missing the mobile consumer could be costing a fortune in missed sales. If you haven’t optimized your site and your content for this new type of consumer, there are three steps to take now.
Answer the questions of mobile users – Mobile users typically pose their search queries as questions, and Google rewards sites that deliver the answers to those questions with higher rankings and visibility. This is a change that went into their ranking algorithm in the second half of 2013, but many local businesses still aren’t aware of it.
Offer great content – Simply composing content that has some relation to your products but focuses more on keywords that used to deliver traffic has been the target of Google algorithm changes for several years. If you’re still using keyword-loaded content on your web pages there are two distinct disadvantages; Google is not paying attention and the mobile users that find you will likely jump to sites that offer a better experience. Instead, Google now surfaces content that is proven to deliver value to searchers and your site has a much better chances of getting valuable backlinks from authority sites.
Re-build your site with responsive design architecture – Delivering a user friendly interface on mobile devices is critical in keeping these searchers on your site after they have landed. Text that is difficult to read, navigation links that are hard to find, and pictures of products that are too small on mobile viewports will typically have users headed for a sight that is mobile friendly. Re-building your site with responsive design architecture can display an optimized interface for mobile users that presents web page information that has been adjusted to the size of the screen of each mobile device.
Local businesses now have a huge opportunity to attract mobile consumers. Make these changes as soon as possible to get in on the action.
If you have noticed that web pages from your site and other online assets are starting to feel the effects of gravity, it’s possible that your SEO tactics are still targeting old search engine algorithm formulas that have changed drastically over the last 18 months. If you haven’t updated your search strategies within the last year, there are 4 steps to take now that can revive your SEO campaigns.
Creating your on and off-site content to answer questions – One of the biggest modifications in Google’s algorithm is the change from basing search results on keyword density to the surfacing of content that answers questions. The first step to take here is to learn how your audience searches for your products and/or services. Mobile searches now outnumber those that originate from PCs and are often posed as what, where, why and how questions. Content that answers those types of queries is now being rewarded with higher rankings.
Generating content that earns links – The practice of building or buying links has basically flatlined as search engines now have the capability to determine whether they occur naturally or are being set up to influence ranking algorithms. Links are as important as ever, but it’s the quality and relevance of the point of origination that matters, not the amount of backlinks. Today, earning a single link from an authority or industry-related site carries more weight than thousands of backlinks with dubious origins. Keep in mind also that these types of links offer the additional benefit of driving targeted traffic to your site, whereas fake links deliver nothing.
Pinpointing your social media efforts – Businesses originally saw social media sites as platforms to broadcast their marketing and advertising, which resulted in a dilutive “the more, the merrier” approach to developing as many diverse pages as possible. As these sites have evolved, the expectation of these communities is that businesses must engage in two-way conversations rather than just blasting out their messaging. This expectation makes it difficult to optimize a variety of different sites, so narrow your focus to the sites that fit best with your business. In most cases, the result of full engagement on a couple of sites will yield far more social actions such as “shares” than being spread too thin on too many social platforms.
$ Make your site responsive – Google has prioritized the experience of mobile users as part of its ranking formula, going as far as highlighting sites that are built with responsive design architecture with a “mobile friendly” designation when searched with a mobile device. Changing your site over to responsive design architecture will allow it to adapt the on-page information that is displayed to the size of the viewport of the mobile device. The result is text that is easier to read, simple navigation, and an interface that works efficiently on smaller screens.
If you haven’t updated your SEO practices in the last year your search rankings may be suffering. By incorporating these steps, your SEO campaigns can be revived while both the quality and the amount of the traffic to your sites increase.
Prior to Google’s rollout of the Panda and Penguin updates and the introduction of Hummingbird, which completely replaced the old algorithm, there were basically two types of SEO campaigns; black hat schemes that used manipulative practices to trick the search engine and quickly move web pages up to high rankings on the results pages and legitimate practices that were designed along the lines of Google’s search parameters. In this environment, black hat techniques often achieved results bordering on the immediate, much to the frustration of the companies that were playing within the rules, as well as Google, the company that was trying to enforce those rules.
Backed with increasing sophistication in detecting black hat techniques, the Penguin and Panda updates attacked spammy links and content in a big way, essentially rendering both practices as obsolete. The re-tooling of the algorithm brought about by Hummingbird was the next significant step in leveling the SEO playing field. The result of these three steps is two-fold; it has become incredibly difficult for black hat techniques to deliver results, and the listings that rank the highest in search results now do so because they answer questions rather than containing a high percentage of keywords that match the search term.
In addition to the modifications in how Google determines which web pages are surfaced, the new SEO paradigm includes the following changes:
Successful SEO strategies will increasingly look like branding initiatives – Google has always wanted to surface quality content and now has the tools to deliver this objective. The emphasis on content that adds value for readers requires published materials to be informative and provide solutions which, rather that pitching products, tends to build trust and credibility over time. These are generally the same objectives of branding initiatives.
Links are valuable, but not in the way they used to be – Within the Google algorithm, the number of links to a page has essentially been replaced by the quality of the originating site. Inbound links from authority sites as well as from social media platforms (aka social signals) now matter more than the sheer number of inbound links.
Keyword research is dead, replaced by market research – Content that answers questions and solves problems is what Google is looking for now, meaning that companies that can publish material that serves as a resource will see an increasing number of their web pages listed at the top of search results. Of course, this requires an understanding of what is being asked by potential customers, hence the need for market research.
The SEO universe has undergone some drastic changes. To ensure continued success with your SEO endeavors, assess your current strategy to determine whether drastic changes are needed there as well.
Back in the days when Madison Avenue reigned supreme, intrusive advertising was the way in which companies communicated with their existing and potential customers. These one way conversations were generally designed in one of two ways; as branding pieces that showed how a product could enhance the life of the person who bought the product or as overt attempts at making a sale. In this paradigm the company would develop a campaign, often through the use of focus groups, and then communicate the messaging through traditional media channels. After receiving the messaging via advertisements on TV, radio, or print, consumers either made purchases or they didn’t and, regardless of the decision, rarely provided feedback to the sponsoring company.
Today, intrusive one-way advertising through traditional channels is waning, as evidenced by ever skimpier daily newspapers and magazines, as well as a growing number of devices (ex. DVRs) and subscription services, such as premium TV channels, that allow consumers to either filter advertisements out or avoid them completely. In this changing landscape, when consumers seek information on product/services, they now head to the internet where they can use search engines to go from the beginning to the end of the buying cycle.
In this process, the value of intrusive advertising is greatly diminished, as consumers first seek content that serves as the foundation of their research and get progressively more specific with their inquiries as they move through the buying cycle. It is during this process in which an SEO campaign that has been created with materials designed to deliver informative content can start building trust with potential customers. This type of content can have four different purposes:
The provision of general information – This type of content may address the product category in total with description of what the products do, buying the right size, and how to make comparisons that may help with the final purchasing decision.
Assisting with comparisons in greater detail – This type of content would include information that describes an efficient way to compare energy consumption between similar refrigerators, for example.
“How to” information – Content pieces that provide instructions on how to operate the product can be done in written form, but are often more powerful when offered in a video format.
End of buying cycle information – This content answers questions about specific issues, such as detailed information on features and/or warranty coverage, which are commonly posed just before a purchase.
A consumer who views these content pieces will have a solid foundation of resources and knowledge on which to base a purchase. Additionally, by creating content that specific targets end of buying cycle issues, you can attract consumers who are just about to pull their credit cards out to make a purchase.
Google has made sweeping changes to the algorithms that determine the rankings of web pages, resulting in the obsolescence of a wide variety of search engine optimization (SEO) practices with other practices becoming the core of successful SEO efforts. Here are two things to do in light of what Google wants now.
$ Develop professionally written content – Quality content has always been a central element of SEO campaigns but black hat optimization tricks often surfaced crummy content, much to Google’s dismay. Over the last three years, with the rollout of the Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird algorithm updates, the search engine gradually shut down manipulative practices such as low quality publications on sites referred to as content farms and buying spammy links by the thousands. With the elimination SEO trickery, the publication of quality content is now a core element of SEO. Additional changes in the algorithms are now designed to reward websites that regularly post valuable content which subsequently generates social signals such as sharing and other forms of engagement. The best way to ensure that your content attracts these forms of attention is to develop professionally written content, which can enhance branding efforts as well.
Make your website mobile device friendly – Desktop computers will never go away completely but mobile devices are both the present and the future for internet access. Google, which already considers the web to be “mobile first” and strives to deliver the best user experience possible to its customers, is now gauging the quality of the interface between mobile devices and websites, which doesn’t bode well for sites that present the same page configuration whether being viewed with a massive screen or a small viewport on a smartphone. To deliver the website experience Google seeks, you’ll need to make your website mobile device friendly by adding responsive design architecture, which configures and customizes the information on each page to the size of the screen through which is being viewed.
Here are two things to stop doing:
$1 Believing in SEO shortcuts – While there was once a stable of black hat techniques that delivered SEO results, those shortcuts have been rendered useless by Google’s algorithm changes. Generally speaking, the optimization process must now follow a more natural path, which no longer includes instant gratification in SEO efforts.
Guest blogging – When it came to guest blogging, the temptation of doing spammy content to generate links was too much and Google has now killed the practice. Whether you were guest blogging on other sites or allowing others to blog on yours, the benefits are gone and the risk of being penalized is too high to continue with this practice.
Giving Google what it wants will be the key to success in your SEO efforts. On the flipside of that coin, if you’re still taking shortcuts and/or trying to build links by guest blogging, stop both of them now.
When Google released The Panda and Penguin algorithm updates in 2011 and 2012 respectively, the reaction from affected website owners was immediate and loud due to the fact that practices such as distributing single articles that had been spun dozens of times and buying backlinks for $10 per thousand had finally become detectable and would no longer deliver the benefits of front page rankings for search results. The loudest voices after these algorithm updates were from the owners of sites that, in addition to losing the juice from blackballed practices, had also been penalized for going above and beyond Google’s tolerance level for SEO chicanery.
On the other hand, when Google rolled out its most sweeping algorithm change in years, referred to as Hummingbird in August of 2013, the search engine waited a month to make the formal announcement during which time barely anyone noticed. This seeming subtlety masked a directional change in how Google interprets search queries, which may not have rocked rankings as much as Panda and Penguin, but may be affecting the rankings of your web pages now.
Prior to the Hummingbird algorithm change, Google’s algorithm would parse each word in a search term and deliver results based on the web pages that had content containing those words. Pages that had the exact sequence of words in the query would typically rank the highest while pages that contained the words in the search term, but not in sequence, would be ranked at the next level down from exact matches. This methodology, much to Google’s dismay, could be gamed by stuffing content with high percentages of keywords that often made the text difficult if not impossible to comprehend, but high rankings would still be granted.
The Hummingbird algorithm takes a different approach; by assessing search terms in the context of a question, the search engine now returns web pages that are seen as delivering the best answers to that question. If your web page rankings have suffered since the Hummingbird algorithm rollout, there are several actions you can take to rehabilitate them, including:
Replace keyword research with finding the questions your customers are most likely to ask when they search for the products/services offered by your business – Only by knowing these questions can you develop content that provides relevant answers.
Deliver copious volumes of information – When answering these questions, be generous with your information and invite readers learn more on additional pages within the site. This action will help your SEO efforts while also helping to sell the products being researched.
Develop new content consistently – This has always been a staple of Google’s algorithms, but it’s more important than ever now. Plus, the more you publish, the more questions your site can answer.
SEO is all about content now. By delivering content that answers questions while delivering information and value, your SEO rehabilitation will have begun.
Google, which has always prized quality content as a key aspect of delivering an optimal user experience, is now in a position to realize its vision with the Hummingbird algorithm change that was rolled out in the second half of 2013. The new algorithm revolutionizes search by changing from keyword-based results to a new paradigm that analyses queries in context and then delivers results based on content that answers the questions posed by the search terms. As Google has planned all along, this places the development of quality content that delivers value to searchers squarely at the center of the vast majority of SEO campaigns.
While quite clear in terms of the types of content that will deliver results, the new paradigm poses a new challenge to small business owners due to the amount of work that is entailed in the development and execution of content marketing strategies. Considering what is at stake, there are 3 reasons to outsource your content marketing now.
Playing to strengths – Most businesses are founded based on the strengths of their founders, but developing content is usually not one of them. The focus on well-written posts now mandates that the content sponsored by businesses be of professional quality across different media formats that go beyond written text to include videos, podcasts and optimized images. Even in situations where founders are great writers, spending time generating content is probably not the best use of time versus running the business, meeting growth objectives, etc.
The sheer quantity of content that has to be created – The transition of professionally written content to the forefront of SEO initiatives also requires the publication of new materials on a regular basis, a task that will consume an increasing amount of time that, if not outsourced, will ultimately prove to be a burden on the key members of the staff. Again, the time spent on the creation of content will likely pull key people away from their core competencies.
Distribution – The increased amount of content has to go somewhere, and most businesses aren’t equipped for distribution through the channels that will deliver the best results. A firm that is experienced in the distribution of high value content can point specific materials to channels that can optimize SEO, marketing, and client acquisition activities simultaneously.
Running a business is more than a full time job and while the new paradigm in SEO presents numerous opportunities, there may not be enough hours in the day to do both successfully. Instead, by outsourcing your content marketing you can focus on running your business while a professional team widens your audience and builds your brand.
While reputation management and search engine optimization (SEO) have long been categorized as different activities, the management of both practices is almost identical with two exceptions, scope and instances where a reaction is required to counter negative content that has been published prior to the initiation of a proactive reputation management program. Regarding the difference between the two practices in terms of scope, traditional SEO campaigns are narrower with the objective of optimizing single pages to rank at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs) for strategically selected keyphrases. A proactive reputation management campaign, on the other hand, with be initiated for the purpose of populating the front pages of SERPs with multiple page listings.
The second difference, where reputation management strategies are executed in reaction to negative publications, focuses the energy and resources of the campaign on developing content to counter the specific keyphrases contained in the targeted content. For example, if the published negative content specifically mentions “ABC Product”, the campaign would focus on optimizing content based on the keyphrase “ABC Product” as well as the company’s name and any other search terms that might pull up the negative content. Under these circumstances, the campaign would be focused on defending specific search terms as defined by outside events, rather than focusing on keyphrases that provide the greatest opportunities, traffic, conversions, etc.
For businesses that have yet to initiate reputation management and SEO campaigns or for those running them as separate entities, the similarities in execution provide an opportunity to consolidate resources and efforts to realize a sum that is greater than the two parts. In effect, running an SEO campaign like a reputation management initiative or vice-versa can serve the marketing objectives of SEO while also building a protective wall around the business’ reputation. In addition to these benefits, the combined campaigns can play an integral role in building the brand of the company through the strategic and comprehensive development of content that provides valuable and relevant information to the target market.
The provision of company intelligence then serves to build trust and credibility (building the brand), supplement the marketing purposes of SEO and, as an increasing number of listings ascend the SERPs, increase visibility. In addition to hindering the ascension of negative content, the self-reinforcing cycle also delivers another key benefit; more listings at the top of the SERPs for the sponsoring company means less visible listings for competitors. This outcome adds another aspect to the positive cycle as ownership of the front pages of the SERPs fortifies both marketing and brand building efforts as potential and existing customers see an expanding presence in the results for their search queries.