Giving search a voice: What is the impact of Google's Hummingbird for marketers?

Mobile penetration and the rise of wearable computers are driving a fundamental change in how people search, and Google has reacted in kind. Jessica Davies looks at what Hummingbird, an entirely new algorithm designed to understand search intent and context, means for marketers.

Both a dream and a nightmare for marketers, Google never stands still for long, continuously tweaking and updating its algorithm to ensure consumer experience comes first, and keeping search marketers on their toes.Yet its latest rollout Hummingbird marks the biggest change to its organic search algorithm in more than a decade, representing a complete rewriting of the algorithm – not just a simple update, as many are calling it. Whereas Google’s previous SEO updates, which include Caffeine in 2010, and later Panda and Penguin, were all aimed at improving the search experience for users by cracking down on ‘black-hat’ tactics used by search marketers looking to gain the system, Hummingbird is more indicative of its ultimate ambition – a move into semantic search. Its creation stems partly from the recognition of the steady growth of mobile devices, and the expected rise of wearable computers like Google Glass and smartwatches, with some reports already predicting shipping of these devices to reach the hundreds of millions by 2018. Such different, smart devices will trigger different consumer behaviours with most expecting voice-centric search to take a more prominent role in future. As such Hummingbird, which was officially revealed on 26 September, is designed to respond to detect the intent and context behind an individual’s query and in turn deliver a more personally tailored result than the traditional list of blue links. Most marketers are excited by the changes, among them Holiday Lettings, which works with DigitasLBi. The brand’s SEO manager Ondrej Miklas says the arrival of Hummingbird signals that Google is back on track with its original agenda, having been distracted by other priorities for years. “Hummingbird is a very exciting development and totally different to Panda and Penguin. It gives better insight into where Google is headed, which is very important for any business these days. “Over the last three years Google has been trying to catch the spammers and clean up its results with Panda and Penguin. It has had to defend its positions and product because people were taking advantage of it. “Now is has fought the spammers and won and has turned back to the heart of its mission, which is finding solutions to people’s problems as fast as possible, and one thing it had to take its foot off the gas with was understanding semantics and users’ intent when they search – the meaning behind words. That’s what Hummingbird does,” he says. Granted, Google has earned its stripes in putting out fires, doling out some crushing penalties over the years to companies that have flouted its SEO rules. Yet there are clear clues that show its plan to push into semantic and voice-centric search has been in the pipeline for some time, manifesting in other areas. For example, the last year has seen it block keyword referral data for organic searches, meaning marketers can no longer see what terms people have used to arrive on their sites. Hummingbird was launched by stealth a month before it was officially announced. By the time it arrived, marketers were already seeing 100 per cent of their keyword referral data ‘not provided’. Some believe this is why Hummingbird was able to launch undetected by the search community. VCCP Media founder and IPA search council chair Paul Mead says it was “weird” that no one saw much of an effect to their traffic despite it being such a big update. “One of the theories is that Hummingbird affects more of the long-tail queries rather than bigger volume search terms. Given long-tail queries aren’t searched for very often, and because of ‘not provided’ you don’t get the richness of keyword data you used to it’s quite easy to miss them. “So actually, collectively a lot of websites could have missed a whole load of stuff on their long-tail traffic but they probably didn’t notice because the volume didn’t drop off a cliff and SEOs can’t monitor the long-tail stuff as effectively as before because of the lack of keyword data. That’s why for a lot of people they didn’t think they were affected, but they may have been,” he says. The apparent pattern from the two activities – Hummingbird and the blocking of keyword referral data seem to be part of a greater plan to shift away from using typed keywords as the primary method of searching, and reducing marketers’ reliance on them. Marin Software’s VP Jon Myers believes this is the start of the search engine’s move away from being keyword centric. “We will see search now move from being not just about keywords and the conversions they drive in SEO and PPC, with more focus put on quality of content and audience data. But integrating audience data and understanding what types of people are making searches – that is a great opportunity. A certain demographic may convert a lot better than another for example and Hummingbird speeds us up into that future,” he says. Aegis Media-owned performance arm iProspect’s lead SEO strategist Jeremy McDonald believes Google has been relentless in its core value; which is to accurately understand and quickly answer users search queries. “Whether the query is ‘what is the population of Germany’ or ‘who is Barack Obama’, Hummingbird was an exciting first step into addressing the changes in the way we use and interact with search engines. No longer is searching on Google simply putting a keyword in and it returning a result, Hummingbird allows Google to (try) and understand the query before returning a mixed and detailed answer. “As search professionals this is something that we welcome and embrace; understanding and taking advantage of these changes can allow us to deliver a richer search experience as well as placing our clients on the forefront of the future search landscape,” he says. The idea is that Google can detect a person’s GPS location from what device they are using, to help inform the results it returns. “If you search for M&S from a mobile device and Google knows that device is driving 70mph up the M11 it will know you want the nearest M&S service station rather than a high street one – that’s where it wants to go. It is trying to move away from keywords towards context and meaning,” says VCCP Media’s Mead.Luxury shirt brand TM Lewin’s head of search Francisco Lema says the evolution of voice search is an area to watch. “Voice search, it’s quite cool, although it’d be nice to see it work with different things than David Beckham or Brad Pitt’s examples. I guess it’s a start. A very cool one. It’s also quite exciting to see the implications on how people will start searching for products and services. Things like voice search, location based results, contextual search are definitely improving the user experience, which in the end is what matters.” However, he also believes Hummingbird’s arrival will once again stir up issues surrounding the monopoly of information, which Google is continuously working to keep at bay. “I think it has a lot of issues in terms of digital rights, monopoly of information, manipulation of opinion/information. This has always been a debate around Google, but I think with Hummingbird this debate becomes much more relevant, as I think Hummingbird is a clear attempt to have better control over that information.“Not to mention quality of information, the web is being populated by rubbish, inaccurate, irrelevant content from companies trying to rank higher in search results. Don’t get me wrong, the web has always been full of rubbish, but that doesn’t mean that we need to put more on it,” he adds. Others stress that this could be yet another ploy of Google’s to establish itself as a content destination, providing people with more visual, tailored content options that keeps them within its own domain. Regardless of the motives, the Hummingbird rollout is likely to be the first of many steps the search giant takes towards redefining the search experience. As wearable computers and mobile devices continue to proliferate and voice-search becomes a core feature of all devices, the changes will continue to accelerate and marketers must ensure they are aligned to take advantage. This feature was first published in The Drum's Search supplement on 13 December.