Imagine if Google could read your mind… It’s trying to. Say you search “crane” – does Google know if you’re looking for the machine, the bird, or even the town in Texas? It doesn’t really, but it wants to. However, if you search “where can I hire a crane?” then Google knows from the words “where” and “hire” that you’re after the machine, and additionally, you want places nearby that hire out cranes.
This is semantic search; Google trying to determine from the sentence as a whole, exactly what you’re after. It’ll also use your personal information to infer context. For example, if it picks up (using GPS) that you’re in Austin, Texas, then it’ll know that you’re likely to be looking for directions to Crane, Texas if you just search “crane”.
Essentially, Google wants to become an ‘answer engine’, rather than a search engine. Part of the reason for this is the increase in smartphone usage and voice search, where it is more natural for people to search in a conversational way, rather than by using a few key terms.
A major step towards this was the release of a new algorithm dubbed ‘Hummingbird’ (apparently to reflect that it is “precise and fast”). Unlike the chaos that ensued when the Panda and Penguin algorithm updates hit, Hummingbird actually slipped through relatively undetected (Google had been using this new algorithm for about a month before the announcement, and no-one really noticed).
You may be asking what a Google algorithm is. Google simply says: “You want the answer, not trillions of webpages. Algorithms are computer programs that look for clues to give you back exactly what you want.” In terms of the Hummingbird algorithm in particular, it appears this is intended to be a major step in the journey towards more intelligent search (by focusing more on conversational search), and laying the groundwork for future changes.
Think of it like going from baby’s first words, to beginning to form partial sentences, and growing up to be able to clearly express themselves. Google is the interpreter of these words. At first these were just a few key terms (e.g. “buy chocolate”). Now it’s shifting towards understanding that “I want some chocolate” may mean I want to see physical stores near me, and perhaps even the type of chocolate I’m after.
For searchers this should mean search results displaying better answers. For website owners that already create great, consumer focused content, this should see them continue to be at the top of the search results.
So while Hummingbird did not result in any obvious change, website owners will in future, more than ever before, really need to think about what their consumers are after, and how they can best serve their needs. Websites need to solve the questions that consumers asked Google when they asked their search query.
Emmeline Dorsey is Head of Search and Email Direct Marketing at BCM