On the heels of Google’s announcement about Hummingbird — its first major algorithmic update since 2001 — it is important to examine the looming changes underway and how they affect local search visibility and local businesses’ and marketers’ mid- and long-term SEO and digital marketing strategies.
With the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 back in 2007, just a few of us geeks really understood that the “atomization” of the web was occurring and driving the need for structured data to organize the web and make it interoperable. This was a daunting and huge idea at the time.
While many startups were funded in the Valley to solve this big data problem, slowly and quietly the industry has been progressing toward a structured data world. Standardization of data structure on simple things like name-address-phone number (NAP) information, mapping, local business category, organization (micro-formats) are now starting to pick up steam and become increasingly important for local search and discovery. Now with Hummingbird, things are about to get even more interesting.
Hummingbird and the future of local search and discovery
Google gives us other hints (or smacks across the head) with the recent decision to “not provide” keyword data in Google Analytics for search marketers. Moving to a world of “entity search,” Google (other search engines and applications will follow) will determine what to prioritize based on how well structured content fits the questions being asked in search. That means moving away from targeting keywords or phrases to answering searchers’ questions. While this seems like an obvious strategy that we are already implementing, the subtle but important difference is where you start. It’s about your product or service and how it fits a need, versus gaming keywords (because you will increasingly not be rewarded for those, and may get penalized).
Hummingbird reflects a link that is a citation for its usefulness, so our response has to be how to create usefulness that will motivate people to like it, share it, and comment on it. Importantly, you have to be natural; don’t think you can look natural and get away with it over the long term. In fact, Google has statistical analysis that will uncover unnatural link patterns and penalize your website.
Communicating to local search engines in this new paradigm
Previously, local businesses focused their digital marketing strategies on keywords. Now, with semantic markup, search engines can interpret page content and meaning in a deeper way recognizing natural language and answering searches in a more relevant way. Going beyond a keyword to interpret a page, semantic data takes a step further by conveying an “entity” and describing it in three ways, e.g., an object, properties and relationships. When this local data is combined, local search results have more significance and better match local searchers’ queries.
Evolution of local SEO and the importance of entities
Semantic search provides open and structured data in order to increase local search visibility by connecting users with information that they want and need. SEO to date has always been about probabilities and then loading the dice with links and keywords. But this has been open to abuse through the previous evolutions of SEO. With semantic web, statistics fade away. Instead, it is personal. Local search itself is changing because of mobile, social, personalized, conversational, predictive (Google Now), Functional (Google Maps) and Infontational (YouTube). Most local searchers today have a unique experience versus the person next to them searching the same query because of all these layers of personalization. The challenge is to understand the new landscape and succeed.
“Entities,” as defined by the new semantic nomenclature, are the emerging driver. These are the relational mapping that uncovers the association between different local data points. Google takes structured data and puts it into a standard format (Carousel, Knowledge Graph, Search Results and Appended Data). Over time, first page ranking will not mean as much because there will be so many ways a local business will be able to gain visibility, especially with long tail. This does not mean the death of SEO, but it will get much harder. The key is to try and keep a sphere of influence in a niche though local data structure and social signals.
Search engine marketing is an evolving practice and with Hummingbird it is about to get very sophisticated and nuanced. While links and rankings in the near term will still drive a local business’ digital marketing strategy, it is important to stay ahead of the curve by understanding future algorithmic changes and making necessary adjustments.
Chris Marentis is the founder and CEO of Surefire Social, a provider of local digital marketing services for SMBs. He previously served as CEO of Clearspring Technologies (now Add This) and senior vice president of AOL’s Interactive Marketing group.