I geek out about content strategy. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a content nerd.
Recently a couple of coworkers and I attended Confab — the annual content strategy conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Six hundred people with a passion for good content got together to share ideas, show off work and network with strategists from brands like Facebook, Instagram, General Electric, Coca-Cola and Whole Foods. (It was awesome.)
Of the 25 sessions offered, my favorite was “Hummingbird for Content Strategists.” James Gunter — a content strategist and writer in Salt Lake City, Utah — helped clarify the complicated topic of Google Hummingbird, which is the latest search algorithm update from Google. He also offered several great tips on how to help Google better understand the content we create.
If you’ve never thought about how Google works, you should. It’s fascinating stuff and you can learn all about it here.
Google uses over 200 factors when it compiles and ranks your search results. When Google launched Hummingbird in September 2013, its goal was to interact with users in a more conversational, human way by providing higher-quality search results to users’ queries.
Interacting in a more human way… Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s exactly how most of us in marketing are trying to reach our customers. We’ve all assumed that if we create great content, our customers and prospects will find it. Somehow. Magically. Right? Well, clearly that’s not the case. It’s time marketers understand the basics behind Google’s search algorithm.
So, What Is Hummingbird?
Like its namesake, the Hummingbird update is light, fast and accurate. It represents a shift in how Google thinks about search. “Google is moving from ‘strings’ to things,” Gunter explained. It’s trying to understand semantic meaning.
For example, before the Hummingbird update, if you searched for the phrase: “Cat’s in the cradle,” Google would have searched for that exact string of terms: cats + in + the + cradle. The search results were based, in part, on web pages that contained those exact terms.
Sites that wanted to rank high on Google’s search results for that phrase could overload their copy with those exact keywords — a bad practice known as keyword stuffing. It didn’t matter if the content was high quality or valuable; it was all about the keywords.
With the Hummingbird update, Google is now better at understanding what your string of terms actually means. Its algorithm helps it understand that “Cat’s in the Cradle” is a 1970s folk rock song by Harry Chapin and the results it finds for you now include information it thinks you might be looking for — music videos, song lyrics, biographies of Harry Chapin and lists of 1970s songs.
It’s amazing, really. Google is no longer just a search engine, now it’s an “information engine.” It’s interested in giving context-based answers to specific questions. After all, that’s how Google has become successful — by keeping its searchers happy.
Quality Content Is King
Hummingbird is the convergence of content and optimization, Gunter said. We have always known how to create quality content, but Google didn’t know how to value it, so it used keywords and links by default. Now quality = optimization.
“Google is way beyond ranking websites. It’s looking for information. For Google, one web page is like a single grain of sand on a beach on the Earth in the Milky Way,” Gunter said. “You have to understand what Google wants and give that to it.”
How to Improve Content for Google Search
Let’s just assume we all strive to create good content — content that is relevant, useful and usable to our target audiences. Good content is now the minimum. Here are four suggestions to make your content more Google-friendly:
1. Write More
Forget everything you’ve heard about short attention spans and audiences that are too busy for anything but a snippet or a sound bite. Long-form articles are back! This is great news for writers who have struggled to take complex issues and condense them into quick, reader-friendly snippets. Google may now favor a 2,000-word article over a 500-word article because it’s giving the searcher more information.
OK, it’s not quite that simple. While there is no magic word count, Gunter explained that Google wants in-depth, quality content that gives searchers more value and truly answers their questions.
2. Use Rare Words
Using “rare” words is also a best practice and is generally rewarded by Google, Gunter advised. Use words that accurately reflect the language of your industry. Take a look at the 5,000 most common words in the English language and compare it to the keywords you use to talk about your brand and industry — maybe it’s time to revise your list. “Create a unique voice. Talk in-depth about your expertise. Don’t be afraid to explain the science behind it,” Gunter advised.
3. Use Google’s Tools and Language
There are two websites that will help you tag your content so that Google can better understand it. (You’ll want to get your web experts involved in this.)
First, tag your content with the HTML language outlined on schema.org. “Google is a robot. It can’t read and understand your content, but it wants to,” Gunter said. The major search engines, including Google, Yahoo! and Bing, all got together and created a shared collection of “schemas” that webmasters can use to mark up HTML pages.
Use this shared mark up vocabulary in your content tagging process. Gunter recommended using tags for everything — blogs, articles, answers, episodes, maps, recipes, products, offers, etc. “Tag them all. Tell Google what it is you’ve put on that page. You can mark up your content in a way so Google doesn’t have to guess on it. Google favors those it can understand,” Gunter said.
Second, use freebase.com to uniquely identify your company and products. “Freebase is an open database that anyone can use. Basically, it’s a database of everything,” Gunter explained. “Google owns it and uses it to understand entities.”
Anyone can create an account and add information to the database. Obviously, it’s not the only database Google uses in its algorithm but it is part of the system. So take advantage of it and help Google better understand your company and products.
4. Work with Influencers
Entities — a person, place, thing or idea — are now a big part of Google’s algorithm. Google relies on entities, rather than keywords, to understand user intent while mapping additional verified sources to answer a search query.
Huh? This is where things got complicated. If you want the full story, go search for co-occurrence and co-citation and learn all about it.
For marketing purposes, to “become an entity” means focus on your linking and influencer strategies and ways to further connect your company to powerful partnerships and associations with influential sites that Google already trusts. It’s not just links to other sites, but also the phrases your brand or company is “co-occurring” with in search results. “Google wants to see relationships between you and other entities,” Gunter said. “It wants to see that you are linking out to other good users.”
Another tip is to look at the type of content you’re creating. Google is looking for diverse sets of media — visuals, videos, long and short articles, Wikipedia pages, etc. — to provide to searchers. (Don’t forget to tag them using Schema’s language!) It favors entities because it trusts them. If it can corroborate content about your brand or organization from several different places or partnerships, then it will trust your web page more.
It’s Our Turn
Google is trying to understand and measure quality, and we excel at producing high-quality content. It’s our turn to take more responsibility, embrace Google’s vision and in turn get more exposure for our clients’ content. Google’s twin goals are value and quality; it wants to be the best place on the Internet to give users what they want. It’s up to us to make it happen.