What Small Businesses Need to Know About Google's Hummingbird Update

by Kevin Casey on October 7, 2013
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When word spreads that Google has changed its revered-and-feared search algorithm, you can bank on a big reaction. Google, an essential driver of web traffic for many small businesses, continues to dominate online search, with more than 70 percent of total visits. Its closest competition, Microsoft’s Bing, gets about 9.5 percent.

So the internet was abuzz after Google announced it had rolled out “Hummingbird,” the newest version of its search algorithm. (If you need a crash course, Search Engine Land offers this thorough FAQ.) Now that the dust has settled on the news, let’s take a look at some of the possible effects on your website traffic.

Details Still Unfolding

First, take a deep breath. Google has been using Hummingbird for at least four to six weeks already. And anyone who claims to know exactly what effect the algorithm will have on how people find your business online is probably selling you snake oil.

“The truth is that we don’t know a lot about Hummingbird right now, beyond Google’s official announcement,” says Pete Meyers, marketing scientist at Moz. “They’re telling us it happened about a month ago, and we and other industry folks saw what looked like an algorithm update around Aug. 20 or 21. But detecting these changes is an inexact science at best.”

Meyers tells the Intuit Small Business Blog that Hummingbird is more likely to have a greater impact on search results in the future than today. By no means, however, does that mean you shouldn’t pay attention now. Hummingbird may lay the groundwork for how people will find information — and find your business — via Google in the future.

Highlights of Google’s Announcement

In its announcement, for example, Google highlighted an improved ability to handle natural-language queries, or phrases that better reflect how people communicate instead of strings of keywords: “Tell me about Impressionist artists” vs. “impressionist artists.” Meyers notes that Google’s Knowledge Graph underpinned much of the Hummingbird announcement, especially new features, such as comparison charts.

“To me, this suggests that Hummingbird is more than just a different way of processing searches — it’s an underlying structure to drive high-powered semantic search. We’re also seeing hints that Google is starting to extract answers in Knowledge Graph from more than just data partners. They’re essentially mining websites for specific information. I strongly suspect that Hummingbird will power more of this, and we may not understand the impact for months to come.”

Going Forward, Act Like a Brand

Is your head spinning yet? Take another deep breath. As Meyers says, search engine optimization is an inexact science. Although Hummingbird appears to be a major update, Google makes hundreds of smaller tweaks a year, some of which have a significant effect on search results and some of which barely register in the public eye.

The bottom line, according to Meyers: “Going forward, all of Google is headed, in my opinion, in one clear direction: Google wants to model the real world and build a web of answers and entities, not just pages,” he says. Hummingbird is a step in that direction. Although the algorithm update may not have a major impact on your business today, the bigger picture Meyers paints is one to prepare for.

“It’s not going to be enough just to build a web page. You’re going to have to act like a brand,” Meyers says. “That means attracting an audience, getting both links and social mentions, building credibility, getting actual traffic, [and so forth]. If you can’t back up your presence on the web with a presence in the real world and the signals to back that up, then I suspect that Hummingbird is eventually going to bite you.”

Kevin Casey is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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