Google changes the game with Hummingbird

The introduction of the Hummingbird update at the start of September has changed the way search is configured and delivered on Google.

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The search algorithm is a completely new system which is supposed to be more accurate and precise and deliver better results for end users. It is the first new major update since 2010, all the other updates in between like Panda and Penguin have just been tweaking the existing algorithm and not actually fundamentally altering the structure.

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The key question is ‘what does this mean to website owners’?

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Google Hummingbird

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Taken on its own the change shouldn’t make that much difference and if your search positions haven’t collapsed already then the chances are that you came through the update relatively unscathed. The problem lies however with both the recent guidance given by Google and the sudden removal of critical keyword data in Analytics.

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Two months ago Google changed the advice to Webmasters from;

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“In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by increasing the number of high-quality sites that link to their pages.”

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To;

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“In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by creating high-quality sites that users will want to use and share.”

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This was the first public recognition of the fact that simply building links to your site was no longer the preferred method of getting better Search Engine rankings. The introduction of the new phrase to ‘use and share’ points webmasters to a couple of areas.

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Firstly there is of course the necessity to ensure that the content you are providing on your site is of a high quality and is sufficiently engaging that visitors to your page will want to read it and gain some benefit from it. Secondly there is the requirement to provide a mechanism by which visitors can easily share what they find across the internet.

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Naturally most if not all website owners will want to provide compelling content and will look to engage people who arrive on their sites with the view of converting them into customers. And of course it makes sense to provide a simple way that people can share what they find easily with others. Realistically this means adding on some form of social sharing icons on every page and allowing people to push what they find quickly to social platforms.

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Social interaction has typically not been placed at the centre of most website design in the past, as the crucial thing was links. Now however it appears that someone sharing your products and services are more important and without social media interaction you are missing out.

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Whilst links from social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are typically ‘no follow’ this means that previously they have had little impact on search however now that has all changed. For whilst these links have no impact on a site’s ‘link profile’ they send enormous signals to Google as to the value of your site.

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For example if someone shares an article you have written across Facebook and Twitter and it starts to drive people to your site to read your article, see your offer, or view the page then Google, through analytics, can tell exactly who has arrived there, where they came from, what they did when they got there and how long they chose to stay and interact with your page and/or site. This gives Google a raft of data from which it can judge whether you are doing a good job and providing people with what they want.

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In fact just this week Google has changed the way Analytics is configured and now it separates Social data out so you can dig much deeper into what is driving the traffic to your site.

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Traditionally you would explore the organic data in analytics and decide, based on the keywords that people had used to find you or where they had come from, whether the content was good enough or if the page needed changing to improve the user experience.

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Sadly however, in the middle of September Google changed the way it delivers search results and it now encrypts virtually all searches. This is a blow to all website owners.

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Jan12 organic
January 2012 Organic Traffic – (not provided) just 1.1%
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In October 2011 we started to track ‘not provided’ data in Analytics for all of our clients which typically looked like this;

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Google introduced it citing ‘personal privacy’ as the reason and a desire to fall in line with American Government wishes to protect the privacy of people online. At the time we were assured by Matt Cutts from Google that it would affect somewhere around 6-7% of all searches as it only encrypted the data when someone searched whilst being logged into a Google account.

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Fast forward to 2013 and on September 23rd Google started to encrypt all searches whether you were logged into a Google account or not. This is the result for the same client;

September 2013 Organic Traffic - (not provided) 64%
September 2013 Organic Traffic – (not provided) 64%
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From October onwards this figure will be rising to between 75% and 100% of all searches which effectively means that it is unlikely that you will be able to tell what people were searching for when they arrived on your site.

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In turn what this means is that you can no longer tell whether the page you have created is the best it can be, whether it needs changing or indeed decide what to change. As a website owner Google have effectively hamstrung you.

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Whether this is truly all about online privacy is hard to tell. Given the imminent arrival on the streets of Google Glass which will allow users to transmit data about where they are and what they are doing very minute of the day this decision to encrypt data seems a little self-serving.

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Website owners can still get some of this data if they choose to pay for Adwords or the Shopping Channel so at that point the privacy angle doesn’t stack up quite as well as it otherwise would.

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Some commentators have suggested that this change is to push business owners to pay for Adwords advertising and in some respects this move is a little like the old paper Directories model. In that world everyone got a free line entry, which allowed the publishers to then contact the businesses and sell them advertising. This advertising then appeared amongst the free entries, effectively drowning them out and taking most of the enquiries so that many businesses were compelled to advertise.

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Google is no different. It is a media publisher and has given everyone a free platform on which it also sells advertising. It should come as no surprise, given the demands of the shareholders and analysts, if it wants to promote its paid channels as a priority.

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Countering these changes has become a full time job although Google maintain that regular website owners shouldn’t be hit by these changes. The reality is that unless you are regularly creating great content for your website, sharing it on social media and keeping on top of your website maintenance then this is now a full time job.

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Google is telling anyone that will listen that these changes are to provide a more accurate and tailored user experience and if you follow this to its logical conclusion there will be no point in site owners doing what they have done previously. Websites will be compelled to create pages which answer as many different queries as possible as it is no longer possible to have a one size fits all approach to providing data to customers.

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This has been coming for a while and helped us determine our three basic rules of Google, which we have operated by since 2011 and still stand today. So if you really want to compete you should never forget these;

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  1. Google is just a machine
  2. Nothing beats good original content
  3. One page, one keyword
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So if you need help with Hummingbirds or a plan for how to get the most out of Google, start with these three and you can’t go far wrong.