In recent months, Google has made three significant changes to its offerings. Each has both minor and major implications for search engine optimization (SEO) and online marketing.
Google remains by far the dominant search engine, with 67 per cent of the overall market, according to comScore. Whenever it revises, gets rid of, adds to or otherwise changes its search-related services, then, search marketing professionals take note.
The three recent updates are Google Hummingbird, which is a complete overhaul to Google's search engine algorithm, the encryption of all search data and the switch to the new Keyword Planner tool.
SEO and online marketing professionals say the cumulative effect of these changes underscores the growing importance of three things: Optimizing for natural language and mobile search, not focusing too intently on keywords for SEO and, above all, keeping your sites set on regularly publishing high-quality content.
Now more than ever, says Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, an SEO, social media and guest blogging service, you need a "solid content marketing strategy."
Google Hummingbird: Now Supporting 'Conversational Search'
What is it? On September 26, on its 15th birthday, Google announced it had dramatically rewritten its search algorithm for the first time in at least a dozen years. Google is calling the revamped algorithm "Hummingbird", according to Search Engine Land, because it's "precise and fast."
(In a surprise to many, Google also announced that the algorithm change had been in place for more than one month.)
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"Google Hummingbird is a complete algorithm makeover, designed to do a better job of understanding the intent of long-tail search queries as well as spoken and natural language search queries," DeMers says. (A long-tail search query includes more than a few words. Google Hummingbird is a short-tail query, while What does Google Hummingbird mean for SEO? is a long-tail query.)
Hummingbird is meant to deliver the best results for "conversational search." Such queries are occurring more frequently as people ask questions of their smartphones - a habit that carries over to desktop searches as well.
What does it do? In a Google Hummingbird FAQ, Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan used the long-tail query What's the closest place to buy the iPhone 5s to my home? as an example of how Hummingbird differs from the previous Google search engine algorithm.
With that iPhone 5s query, "A traditional search engine might focus on finding matches for words - finding a page that says 'buy' and 'iPhone 5s,' for example," Sullivan notes. Hummingbird, on the other hand, should "better understand the actual location of your home, if you've shared that with Google. It might understand that 'place' means you want a brick-and-mortar store. It might get that 'iPhone 5s' is a particular type of electronic device carried by certain stores. Knowing all these meanings may help Google go beyond just finding pages with matching words."
What does it mean for SEO? In the wake of Hummingbird, Google's SEO guidance remains unchanged: Publish "original, high-quality content."
With Hummingbird and other recent changes, DeMers adds, Google is "betting on the continued rise of mobile usage. It's safe to assume that Google is going to be looking for content and websites that deliver a great mobile experience. Mobile content strategies have become a whole lot more important with Google Hummingbird."
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Adam Stetzer, writing for Search Engine Watch, offers this advice: "It is now critically important that (a website) answers questions for end users," due to Hummingbirds ability to more precisely match long-tail queries to relevant content. Content is still king, Stetzer writes, and "content that answers specific questions may be critical for Hummingbird success."
Hummingbird, like the Google Panda and Penguin updates before it, can actually help those engaging in legitimate SEO rise to the top of rankings, notes Joshua Steimle in a Forbes post.
"If you're the best at what you do, these updates Google has been rolling out are opportunities to separate yourself from your competition. They may have been engaging in spammy tactics to get good rankings, but if you've been focusing on creating content that provides real value to potential customers, their days are numbered," Steimle writes. "These changes will help you rise above, and the good news ... is if you've been doing the right things for your SEO, you don't need to change a thing."
Search Data Encryption: Keywords 'Not Provided'
What is it? In a separate move, Google began encrypting all search query data, except for clicks on Google AdWords ads, starting in late August. This means the keywords you type in a Google query are now protected by SSL encryption, even if you're not signed into your Google account.
Presumably, Google's goal was to block spying. (Heads up, NSA!) But many SEO experts believe Google had another motive: Turning off the spigot of useful, free data about keywords to SEO professionals and instead encouraging them to take out paid AdWords campaigns.
What does it do? Search data encryption effectively kills the nonpaid (also known as "organic") keyword data that many online marketers relied on in their site's Google Analytics.
Until the recent move to search data encryption, Google Analytics displayed the number of visits each keyword or search phrase delivered to a site during a given time period; the percentage of new visits resulting from the keyword phrase; the bounce rate (or percentage of visits in which the visitor only looked at one page); and so on.
Related: How to Get Started With Google AnalyticsMore: 6 Google Analytics Tips for Online Marketers, Small Business Owners
For example, a career coach with a site focused on that topic could look at Google Analytics keyword data to see which keywords brought the most traffic: career coach, career counselor, life coach, resume writing and so on. This info was useful to determine which target keywords actually brought visitors to the site - or to discover keywords that deliver traffic but for which the site has not yet created content.
Once Google flipped the all-encryption, all-the-time switch, though, Google Analytics keyword data was completely altered. Instead of seeing a list of phrases such as career coach and career counselor, users see one thing: (not provided). In short: No more keyword data in Google Analytics to help develop and fine-tune your content.
However, Google continues to provide keyword traffic data to those who buy pay-per-click (PPC) Google ads. That's why some speculate that Google's real reason for fully encrypted search is to drive AdWords sales.
What does it mean for SEO? "The encryption of all keyword data is a blow to SEO professionals and webmasters, a clear renewed declaration of war on the SEO industry," DeMers says. "It's a message that Google doesn't want people to obsess over individual keywords but, rather, on simply creating and publishing awesome content."
Analysis: What Is Content Marketing, and Why Does Your Business Need It?
Neil Patel, writing on the QuickSprout blog, offers three steps to take in the wake of "not provided:"
- Stop worrying about Google. "If you have an awesome service or product, you're producing great content, and you're building legitimate and relevant links, you should do fine," Patel notes. "Plus, if you aren't ranking for all of your keywords, it doesn't mean that you won't do well as a business."
- Create "awesome" content. "Instead of spending your money on paying SEO firms to build or buy links, you should focus on creating awesome content as it will generate more social shares and natural links," Patel advises. This, in turn, can help your content rank highly in search queries.
- Turn to alternative sources for keyword data. Google Webmaster Tools still provides some keyword data, including a list of top keywords, the number of impressions and clicks each keyword delivered, the click-through rate and average position. Just log into Webmaster Tools and go to Search Traffic > Search Queries.
Google Keyword Planner: No More Organic Keyword Research
What is it? Google Keyword Planner is the successor to Google's AdWords Keyword Tool.
The AdWords Keyword tool had been "the foundation of SEO campaigns" for years, DeMers says. "Because it was free and provided all the information necessary to conduct keyword research, it was the first place most SEO professionals visited when planning a new SEO campaign."
For example, many SEO professionals used the Keyword tool to discover the local or global search volumes for specific keyword phrases and how competitive each phrase was.
"The keyword volume numbers were more trustworthy than other keyword tools because they came right from the source, and who better to know what kind of search volume keywords get than Google itself?" says Ruth Burr, inbound marketing lead at Moz, which provides SEO and social media analytics software as a service. (Burr wrote about the Keyword Planner on the Moz blog.)
But in late August, after months of warning, Google deep-sixed its AdWords Keyword Tool completely and replaced it with the Google AdWords Keyword Planner.
What does it do? Google Keyword Planner lets AdWords campaign owners research relevant keywords for their ads, group them, estimate traffic the keywords will generate and more.
Why the switch? Google's stated reason: "With Keyword Planner, we've combined the functionality of Keyword Tool and (the AdWords) Traffic Estimator to make it easier to plan search campaigns. That's why Keyword Tool is no longer available. You can use Keyword Planner to find new keyword and ad group ideas, get performance estimates for them to find the bid and budget that are right for you, and then add them to your campaigns."
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Clearly, Keyword Planner is targeted directly at advertisers, not organic keyword research. Not surprisingly, some SEO professionals dislike at least parts of the new Keyword Planner. The old Keyword Tool was accessible to anyone, notes Andrew Youderian, founder of Spire Digital LLC, which owns several e-commerce businesses and blogger for his site eCommerceFuel.com. But Keyword Planner requires a Google AdWords account (which is free) to use.
Youderian also notes that, unlike the Keyword Tool, Keyword Planner no longer lets you segment keyword search volume data by desktop, tablet and mobile. This had been useful to determine what percentage of search traffic for a keyword came from mobile devices, he says.
The Keyword Planner does retain some utility for organic keyword research. For example, Burr notes, you can now view keyword volume on a "hyper-local basis," which helps businesses "get a better idea of the volume and competition in their geographic area."
What does it mean for SEO? You don't have to buy an ad to explore Keyword Planner's keyword research data. Instead, set up an AdWords account (if you haven't already) and use Keyword Planner to research keyword search volumes.
Other free keyword research tools to consider include the Bing Keyword Research tool (which requires a Bing Webmaster Tools account), Wordtracker and SEMRush.
James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter @james_a_martin and on Google+. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.
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