What Google’s 3 Big Changes Mean for the Future of SEO – And How to Adjust Your Internet Marketing Strategy

October 31, 2013

Google is no stranger to algorithm tweaks and Adwords changes, but the recent Hummingbird update and full-on move towards semantic search represent the company’s biggest search shifts since the early 2000s. Even much-feared updates like Panda and Penguin pale in comparison to these changes. In this post, we’ll talk about three recent Google changes and touch on what they mean for your Internet marketing efforts. Don’t worry: As always, we’ll leave you with some useful takeaways to help you position your business for an uncertain but exciting future.

Hummingbird: Googling the Future

google-hummingbirdHummingbird has gotten the lion’s share of the public’s attention, so we’ll start here. Previous updates like Penguin and Panda had certainly made substantive changes to the ways in which Google’s search engine indexed and ranked sites. For instance, Penguin identified new black-hat techniques and increased the “penalties” for such tactics. By contrast, Hummingbird uses an entirely new algorithm to translate search queries into relevant results. If Penguin and Panda were the virtual equivalent of oil changes, Hummingbird is analogous to a wholesale engine rebuild.

In a nutshell, Hummingbird represents the most advanced iteration of an evolving system known as “semantic search.” Unlike the keyword-driven algorithms that Google once used – and that search engines like Bing and Yahoo will continue to use until they release Hummingbird-like updates of their own – semantic search aims to uncover the actual intent or meaning behind everyday search queries. In some circles, this is known as “natural language search.”

Just What Is Semantic Search, Anyway?

Techopedia offers a concise definition of semantic search, describing it as a “data searching technique in a which a search query aims to not only find keywords but to determine the intent and contextual meaning of the words a person is using for search.”

Rather than returning a static slate of results for general keywords like “muffler,” semantic search looks at the context of each individual search for “muffler.” Factors that might influence the results of a post-Hummingbird search include the searcher’s location, current news, or product-development trends and keyword synonyms.

This has important implications for local businesses that aim to improve their local inbound marketing efforts. Since Google now uses searchers’ locations to return relevant results for local products and services, a San Jose-based user’s search for “Where can I get a new muffler?” will return very different results than a New York-based user’s search for the same tail.

Semantic search is also better at interpreting long-tail searches that ask specific contextual questions. Pre-Hummingbird, “Where can I get a new muffler for my Honda?” might have returned results that contained the words “get,” “muffler” and “Honda” in the meta tag. Unfortunately, meta tag keywords don’t always guarantee relevance. Post-Hummingbird, the same query is apt to point users to local muffler repair shops or car dealerships that work with Honda owners.

If you own a business that serves a local client base, make sure that your website clearly defines your trade area and markets to folks who live within it. Also, don’t be afraid to update the content on your site to include fewer awkwardly phrased keywords. As you’ll see, it’s far more important to write relevant, engaging content about what your business does than attempt to game search engines into indexing your site based on keyword density. In fact, Hummingbird preserves and strengthens Google’s notorious distaste for keyword-stuffed content.

(Not Provided): Has Encrypted Search Killed the Keyword?

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The growing focus on semantic search highlights another important trend that has major ramifications for your Internet marketing operation: the gradual shift to fully encrypted search. In September of 2013, Google indicated that all organic, non-AdWords searches on its platform would be encrypted within a matter of months.

“What is encrypted search,” you ask?

Simply put, encrypted search hides the source of keyword queries. For years, webmasters could look at their Google referrals and see the exact keywords that brought users to their sites. Following the above example, an auto-repair shop owner could easily evaluate the relative efficiency of search terms like “mufflers” or “brake pads.” This is no longer the case. Today, the majority of Google referrals contain a cryptic “(not provided)” message. While this is partially due to the company’s legitimate concerns about user privacy, it’s also an indication that Google intends to reduce its long-held focus on keyword-based searches and improve its semantic search capabilities.

This is the natural endgame of the move towards quality content that began with 2011’s Panda update. If Hummingbird represents the first major move towards semantic or “natural language” search, the demise of organic keyword referrals represents the final nail in the coffin of the pre-Panda era.

This doesn’t mean that keywords are completely dead. For the foreseeable future, it will remain possible to track keyword searches that lead users to your site.

Analytics and Technical SEO: Still Plugging Away

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There are a few different ways of doing this. First, Google has shrewdly – some might say “cynically” – moved all direct keyword reporting to its AdWords platform. While you’ll no longer be able to see organic search results for free, you’ll have no trouble obtaining and analyzing keyword data through AdWords’s paid search feature. Incidentally, this gives Google yet another way to make money off of your Web traffic. If you’re like many business owners and webmasters, you’ve probably received an official snail mail letter from Mountain View that advertises a substantial AdWords credit. This is no accident: The company aims to monetize this recent shift before the end of the fiscal year.

If you’re a bit cheaper, you can still use free tools like Google’s Trends and Keyword Planner tools. Trends dovetails with Google’s Knowledge Graph to analyze and quantify the online penetration of brand-specific terms. Think of it as a “heat meter” for your company’s products and services. Keyword Planner is even more straightforward: It offers information about the cost-effectiveness of common paid search keywords and suggests synonyms or alternatives that may cost less than others. Of course, you’ll need to spring for paid search tools like AdWords to leverage its findings.

If they’re used properly, these tools can wean you from your dependence on old-fashioned organic keyword searches. It’s even more important, however, to focus on maintaining and improving the fundamental quality of your website’s content. It’s all about building authority: No matter what your company does, focus on convincing prospects that it’s the best in the business. Worry less about working relevant keywords into your website’s written content and more about uploading engaging posts, videos, pictures and other media on a regular basis. If your website is the go-to resource for queries about the complex problems that your business exists to solve, new leads and customers will follow.

Hashtags and Social Media

Google+-hashtagThere’s a third major change that has largely been lost in the hullabaloo about Hummingbird and encrypted search: Google’s hashtag search feature and the rise of “Social Media 2.0.” As recent IPOs from Facebook and LinkedIn indicate, social media platforms are finally learning how to monetize their services. For Internet marketers, this opens up a whole new box of exciting possibilities.

Let’s be clear about Google’s hashtag search feature. It remains in its infancy, and the verdict is still out on its effectiveness. However, this is beside the point: In this specific corner of the inbound marketing world, Google is stuck playing catch-up. These days, search engines aren’t the only platforms that can drive streams of traffic to your site.

Moving Beyond the Search Box

According to a recent Ad Age survey, nearly 60 percent of CMOs plan to increase their digital media advertising budgets over the coming 12 months. By contrast, just 30 percent plan to boost spending on cable television. While AdWords outlays do account for a substantial chunk of digital media budgets, Facebook ads, promoted tweets and sponsored content are growing at a rapid pace. Even once-staid LinkedIn is getting in on the action: The business-oriented social media platform just poached a noted Google executive in preparation for a major push into paid advertising.

If you run a consumer-facing business, many of your prospects spend their free time on Facebook. Take advantage of the platform’s intuitive ad-bidding service to work your way into their feeds and sidebars. With powerful algorithms that cater ads to highly specific user demographics, Facebook advertising is arguably more cost-effective than AdWords spending. Meanwhile, B2B marketers can look forward to LinkedIn’s increasingly sophisticated marketing options.

Making Lemonade: Why It’s a Great Time to Be an Internet Marketer

What can we learn from Google’s three big changes? First, we can learn not to overreact to sudden, unexpected changes that could affect our business plans. Microsoft’s increasingly popular Bing marches to the tune of its own drummer, and many SEO strategies that no longer work for Google continue to find a receptive audience there. By and large, the inbound marketing strategies that work for one search engine work for all of them.

More broadly, each passing month brings new online marketing options that savvy business owners can leverage to their benefit. Whether you’re focusing on improving your content marketing operation with authority-building blog posts or trying out powerful new social media tools, a post-Hummingbird world holds tremendous promise for your business.