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Do Keywords Matter in Google's Hummingbird World?

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Rolled out in late 2013, the Google search engine Hummingbird delivers answers instead of educated guesses. Powered by semantic search, results are returned based upon an understanding of what users are looking for—rather than a rank order of approximate answers based on keywords and Boolean parameters.

Implicit in Google's new methodology are significant changes for how marketers approach search engine optimization (SEO) and keywords. Now, every marketer needs to ask themselves: Do keywords even matter?

To answer that question, let's add some context (Hummingbird's specialty). First, we'll dig a little deeper into the concept of semantic search. Then we'll walk through five key takeaways for content creators and search marketers.

Semantic Search Explained

Semantic search is precisely interpreting the meaning among words in a search query. For a long time, that capability was just a distant hope. Instead, for years, Google and other search providers relied on keywords and links to determine the best answer to return for a specific search. Answers were returned rank-ordered as approximations based upon matched keywords on a website and the number of links to that site (with links seen as a "vote" of trust on the website's trust and authority).

Thus, keywords and links became the "virtual currency" of the pre-Hummingbird search economy. All search marketers know how that eventually worked out: Search engine results pages were polluted with misleading results, leading to websites with thin content and providing an unsatisfactory experience to the user.

How Hummingbird Results Are Different

Hummingbird makes the SEO tricks that caused the previously described mess too expensive to pursue. Instead, Hummingbird eliminates guesswork and capably interprets queries with associations. The words surrounding your keywords are now more precisely interpreted. The search engine is better able to discern the relationships between words and thus the context and the user's intent, delivering a much more relevant search result.

Here's an example to illustrate how semantic search works. Let's say a user typed in the question, "How do I fix the gas furnace in my home?" In past years the search engine bots would have honed in on the words "gas furnace" and "home." The results in the SERPs might have included gas furnace distributors, parts, and maybe repairmen.

With Hummingbird, however, a user gets exactly what he or she needs: tips on troubleshooting, "how to repair" (rather than "fix"), and even a YouTube video my wife will love (she's the handyman in our house). There's not a repairman in sight in the organic listings, though the smart repair firms advertised their services via pay-per-click advertising in case my wife can't finish the job.

Hummingbird understands the relationships among topics, themes, and videos, and how they relate to each other. Insufficient or inaccurate queries have a much higher probability of returning the desired result whether by design or accident (called "serendipity" by semantic search expert David Amerland).

With Hummingbird's more sophisticated capability to understand words, their meanings, and their relationships within a query, now marketers can include related words and synonyms.

The result: Keyword stuffing and keyword density need to be dropped from the lexicon of search marketers and SEOs.

So, Are Keywords Dead?

How does this sophisticated understanding of search queries by Google affect search marketers and content creators? Does an emphasis on user intent rather that keywords mean keywords are dead from an optimization perspective?

Here are five key points to address the question.

1. Keywords are now the tools used to discover and uncover user intent. All the words in a query are now important. Google can effectively link associations between words. That makes the query itself—all the words in it—much more important than before.

2. Remove the terms "keyword density" and "keyword architecture" permanently from your vocabulary. Flee from any marketing or SEO "guru" who uses those words. Content created merely to satisfy an optimization requirement (such as keyword density and architecture) for search engine ranking is a waste of time and effort.

3. Replace keyword research with user intent research. Keywords are still an integral part of content strategy. But what's more important is to determine the intent behind those keywords. Create content others will share with users' intent in mind, not the algorithm.

4. Use synonyms. Don't cram keywords down your visitors' throat. Keywords need to be employed in a natural way. Because Google has the ability to understand relationships much better, synonyms work equally well. Your keyword lists should grow exponentially.

5. Content creation, now more than ever, means writing for users—solving their problems, addressing their issues, and enriching their lives. Answer users' questions by creating content that does so.

* * *

Remember that Google's market dominance stems from its ability to reliably supply the best, most precise results for a user query. Semantic search, under the aegis of Hummingbird, protects Google's business by ensuring users receive the best results from Google search.

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Ray Larson is a content strategist for Brandpoint, a content-based marketing solutions company.

LinkedIn: Ray Larson


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  • by Angela Slupe Tue Mar 4, 2014 via web

    Great article, Ray. I especially like point #5... "Content creation, now more than ever, means writing for users—solving their problems, addressing their issues, and enriching their lives." I think too many marketers are concerned about the QUANTITY of their content rather than QUALITY of their content.

  • by Ray Larson Wed Mar 5, 2014 via web

    Thanks Angela- Your comments describe marketers stuck in the pre-Panda/Penguin paradigm: more, stuffed with keywords. is better. Look at Google Analytics guru Avinash Kaushik's blogging efforts. He delivers 2 insightful posts per month. Both provide tremendous value to his audience. His website has tremendous domain authority. Avinash delivers quality in just the right doses.

  • by Harry Hallman Thu Mar 6, 2014 via web

    Excellent article.

  • by Ray Larson Thu Mar 6, 2014 via web

    Thanks Harry!

  • by Jennifer R. Newell Wed Mar 12, 2014 via web

    This article is very insightful and extremely important - not only for marketers but also for companies and business owners trying to understand the shadowy world of SEO. Thank you for shedding some light on the subject!

  • by Ray Larson Thu Mar 13, 2014 via web

    You're welcome Jennifer. I strongly suggest you read David Amerland's book on semantic search. It's the most important marketing book I have read in a long time.

  • by St Louis Web Design Tue Mar 18, 2014 via web

    Exactly the way we handle SEO now and in the past.

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