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The Impact of Google's Hummingbird Release, Improving Mobile and Social Search Relevancy

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March 28, 2014
Internet | Marketing
David Atkins - david@digitaldnainfusion.com

Google’s changes to its Search Algorithms and Results pages are always of interest, and the specific implications for travel business is significant with the latest Hummingbird release.

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Google’s changes to its Search Algorithms and Results pages are always of interest, and the specific implications for travel business is significant with the latest Hummingbird release. As SEO is constantly evolving, this column is a snapshot that reflects the first part of 2014.

There is an epic battle across digital for the mindshare of consumers – the tech giants who are now the largest publishers in the world are waging this war as consumers shift from a personal knowledge-centered universe to a connected social-centered universe. Google, Facebook and Apple are principal actors around which the entire digital universe currently rotates. A challenge for travel suppliers and hoteliers is that they must now act like digital publishers and begin to think more about engaging a broader audience with content, and determine how to extend their brand engagement experience across the digital landscape to win visitors and guests. I anticipate the intermediaries (OTAs, meta search and travel content companies) will move faster, test more frequently, take more risks and invest more than travel suppliers in the near term to leverage the changes in Google.

Google has been challenged in search, its primary revenue-producing business, by the release of Facebook’s Social Graph, which makes a user’s access to his or her community a knowledge asset to equal experience and what only used to be available via search. Facebook is at the center of 80 percent of all social sharing worldwide.

Google’s answer to these landscape changes has been a subtle shift toward using its own social and mobile assets to drive greater engagement and relevancy for users while continuing to leverage and increase value for customers of its core search and display advertising products.

Google continues to research, test and optimize for how its users – in travel these are usually consumers – intend to discover information and to reconcile user intent with its efforts to deliver the best and most relevant results as quickly as possible.

These changes all collectively impact the search engine page results (SERP) that many hotels, brands, advertisers and companies have become accustomed to leveraging for both their paid search engine marketing (SEM) and natural search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.

For several years I have been advising to think like publishers, and recently to think mobile first with a strong global content strategy that leverages localized content, photos, video and user-generated content. Also recommending implementing systems that enable testing and iterative strategies, designs and engaging with users as the market evolves. If you follow this advice you will find that you are further ahead as a result of the Hummingbird release even when combined with the Google Carousel and improved Google Hotel Finder.
Google has sought to decrease the number of queries that users must conduct to arrive at relevant results. All of Google’s developments regarding search optimization have had both intended and unintended consequences in the marketplace. The intended consequences usually result in a specific set of actions – sometimes referred to as signals.

At present, there are roughly 200 signals that Google is constantly tweaking, by themselves and in conjunction with other signals, using both samples and the entire live site to better understand the intent behind a query and show the most relevant results; thus, helping users find the information they seek as quickly as possible. 
Working on SEO, especially with regard to Google in travel, is an accretive, incremental process that requires consistent focus, investment and flexibility. Winning at SEO is about having a global content strategy that is consistent with your objectives and that builds search authority, relevancy and traffic via social engagement, local relevancy and core brand attributes. Companies that focus on these areas tend to do well in SEO regardless of how search algorithms change.

Hummingbird may require you to invest even more in social and mobile relevancy, primarily by creating ties to Google’s own suite of social and mobile products; note this includes Google’s Feeds and APIs.
Hummingbird provides more relevant search results by better understanding the intent of the user’s search query and relies on Google’s own data and feeds from you.

What this means is that Hummingbird may not require a wholesale restructuring of your current digital strategy, or your SEM or SEO efforts. Hummingbird may require implementing a (more) rapid and flexible testing process, while at the same time making incremental investments in social and mobile and insuring that you have a connection to Google’s feeds. 

When Hummingbird is combined with recent changes in Google’s travel sector around Hotel Finder and the Google Carousel, SEM and SEO strategies must be reexamined to insure that business metrics and outcomes are aligned with the new marketplace.

In 2013, users were both more sophisticated and more mobile than they have been historically, and Hummingbird looks to leverage this. These changes in user behavior impact two important conditions that Google looks to solve for: 1.) Users who search today phrase queries as whole sentences or questions; 2.) The state of the user as a mobile user can be inferred from the type of browser, operating system or device from which the query originates. Since mobile users tend to want content and information that is significantly different than what desktop/laptop users tend to want, Google is using Hummingbird to target relevant results to users who are mobile, based on a variety of factors including past search behaviors.

Ten years ago, users would type one or two words into the search query box and the search engines would return a list of websites that scored highest for relevant keywords to the user’s query. Unfortunately, keywords did not always return the right results. Over time, users started using more complex strings of keywords and search engines started matching user queries using partial or exact phrase matches and Boolean searches to deliver more relevant results. Users were still searching using keywords, and as good as Google’s algorithm had gotten, it was still very difficult to infer the users’ specific intent from a keyword-based search.

Hummingbird is currently seen as Google’s social search answer to Facebook’s Open Graph search.  The jury is still out whether the current thinking is correct or if, in fact, Hummingbird will have a much larger impact than is foreseen. Hummingbird is additive to the releases that have come before including both Penguin and Panda. Therefore, existing SEO plans remain relevant, although additional layers of investment may now be required to align with Hummingbird.

Hummingbird enables Google to better answer a query that has been fully phrased as a sentence by the user. It also uses advanced targeting parameters with a focus on mobile to predict user intent. Hummingbird is another plank in Google’s strategy to keep users within Google’s network of information sources, which Google believes will improve the overall search experience and ultimately, improve its opportunity to earn revenue.

The objective of keeping the user within Google’s networks of sites longer is a relatively new concept. It is evidenced in Google’s acquisitions and integrations of high quality content providers that provide travelers and mobile users with editorial and schedule information within the context of its search engine (i.e., Zagat, ITA, Frommers, Waze, etc.). Recent changes to the user experience on Google, such as the Google Carousel – launched first within the travel sector – are further evidence of Google’s new strategy to keep the user engaged with Google longer. The Carousel gives Google the user’s first click off a search result to its own Google+ business page, rather than delivering the user directly to an advertiser’s own domain.

One consequence of the Carousel is that it physically displaces organic search results from the first page, thereby lowering the visibility and click-through rates within the SERP. This allows Google to dominate high-value search page real estate and command travel suppliers develop Google+ pages in order to be featured in the Carousel.

Currently, the Carousel placement is heavily influenced by the freshness and depth of site content as well as by having high quality photos, videos, recent user reviews and other user engagement strategies for Google+, Google Now and Google Places as well as connectivity to Google’s feeds.

All of the algorithmic components that we’ve seen in the SEO industry over the past 10 years continue to assist in search quality. However, as a result of Hummingbird, you need to develop more social, conversational experiences in search and across Google’s network of sites, in the Android™ operating system, and for the advanced search capabilities Google builds into its own mobile devices (Google Nexus, Google Moto X, etc.).
While the primary focus should remain on creating quality content, improving local relevancy, increasing frequency of publish, incorporating social links and user-generated content and reviews within the context of travel and hospitality domains, Hummingbird requires greater focus, experimentation and optimization for several priorities. Here are the four key focal points to review in your strategy and deployment:
  1. Create pages on and develop a user engagement strategy for Google+
  2. Plan to connect to Google’s data feeds
  3. Optimize for Google Now
  4. Prepare for and manage results in the context of encrypted keyword data
According to Google, “Google+ is the social spine that improves the user experience across Google.”
In addition to content marketing and high-quality link building, it’s widely believed that Hummingbird adds a definitive social layer to the search algorithm.  Google+ has become an essential aspect of earning authority and gaining relevancy within Google Search.

Optimizing content for mobile is absolutely essential. Best-in-class leaders will move from m-dot sites to mobile-specific experiences that recognize the user’s state and offer content and information tailored for travel and location-specific information. For instance, the development of searchable FAQs and the display of conversations with users about properties and things to do in the local area that can be captured and repurposed by Google’s natural language processing (NLP) will help enhance visibility within the Hummingbird algorithm.

Mobile, social, video and photo content have their own SEO sub-disciplines that are exploding along distinct paths even while building responsive design user experiences has become simpler and cheaper. This requires additional due diligence as it relates to duplicated SEO keywords and architecture for photos, mobile, video and social content.

Examine and revise global content and SEO strategies to assure alignment with Hummingbird with an eye toward addressing the user’s state and the best use and display of content to indicate to Google the quality, relevance and use of each distinct content type within the user’s chosen channel.

Given the continued pace of change within SEO, conduct cross-functional SEO reviews with your stakeholders, partners and vendors on at least a quarterly basis. This alignment is crucial to the type of iterative success necessitated by the changes in the search landscape. Ideally, your company will be flexible enough to hold ad hoc reviews whenever market conditions dictate.

SEO strategies that emphasize quality content, relevant photos, videos and conversational user engagement recognize platform and context, and leverage user generated content such as travel reviews will continue to win.

David Atkins is a regular columnist for Hospitality Upgrade and has worked in leadership positions on the client side for McDonalds, Microsoft and Expedia among others. David was awarded a 2014 Top 25 Minds in Hospitality Sales and Marketing by HSMAI. David is a principal at Digital DNA Infusion, www.digitaldnainfusion.com.

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Keys to business alignment with Hummingbird

  • Development, acquisition and linking of high quality, local content
  • Using Google’s own data feeds (via API or partner)
  • Development and deployment of the right mobile technologies
  • Development of content and strategies for user engagement across the Google product suite
  • Deep investments in photos, video and social conversations that use Google’s products to tie users, your brand and relevant travel content and information together

Google+ Recommendations

  1. Reinforce/join/build Google+ communities
  2. Develop a plan to connect to Google’s data feeds
  3. Build/enhance a brand business page on Google+
  4. Build/enhance property business pages
  5. Start/continue engaging with your audience via Google+ by answering questions
  6. Start/enhance the creation and linking of your video content via Google Hangouts and YouTube
  7. Use Google+ hashtags within your domains and other digital assets
Recommendations for mobile, social, video and photo content
  1. Consider transitioning from m.mybrand.com mobile sites to responsive design
  2. Examine and revise content strategies, as appropriate
  3. Hold quarterly facilitated discussions on global content strategies and SEO summits with all of your stakeholders
  4. Anticipate and plan for the impact of Hummingbird and Google Carousel on the travel sector
  5. Reinforce and build out deeper Google Now friendly assets and strategies
  6. Review your FAQs for freshness and SEO openess

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