Google’s Hummingbird Update: What’s it mean for users and content producers?

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Image: Jaque Davis, Creative Commons

On September 26, Google announced that it had made an update to its algorithm more than a month ago. They’re calling the update Hummingbird, and it affects a reported 90 percent of searches.

Let me save you going back to re-read that last sentence: it affects nine out of every 10 searches. Last year Google handled approximately 1.9 trillion searches. That’s an average of 5.1 billion searches per day, so we can expect Hummingbird to affect around 4.6 billion searches per day, or probably more, if search volume continues to grow as it has in previous years.

How are searches affected? Suppose you search for “Pepsi Center.” You’re probably looking for information such as an address, box office information, and/or upcoming events. With that in mind, Google used to serve you something like this:Brilliant! There’s the phone number and address right up front, which is helpful if I’m sitting in traffic trying to get directions on my phone (NOT while driving… please don’t be stupid), and one click can take me to the calendar of events, box office, or more detailed directions, if I’m not willing to trust Apple Maps on this one. Sitelinks help me get directly to the information I’m most likely looking for, content that’s most popular or relevant on the Pepsi Center website.

But now, you’ll notice more search results that include the view above, as well as this knowledge graph concoction in the right sidebar:Great for me, the user, because there’s all the information I’m most likely looking for: address, phone number, upcoming events, even some venue trivia, like the fact that it opened in 1999 and holds up to 18,007 people! Google scraped this information directly from the Pepsi Center website, and perhaps other pages as well, but I have no reason to go to those pages now, since my needs have been met.

So what happens when I see that there’s WWE tonight and I get really excited and want to go buy tickets immediately? If I click on the WWE link in the knowledge graph block, I expect I’d be taken somewhere on the Pepsi Center website where tickets to that event are being sold.

NOPE! New Google search:This is not helpful to my quest to purchase tickets, but it does keep me on Google.com for a little longer. Meh.

The Hummingbird update, to be clear, is not an “SEO killer.” Please stop saying SEO is dead. It’s not (this post wins for best photo/caption combo!). In fact, most of us probably didn’t notice any unusual shift in activity over the past month since this update rolled out (and if you did, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!). The goal of Hummingbird is to help Google handle searches more intelligently, and to make results more efficient for the user, but what about the entities who actually produce that content? And I don’t just mean webmasters and copywriters. It takes a village to produce a good website.

Here’s a statement from a Huffington Post article that is concerning to me on two levels:

Besides Hummingbird, Google also announced a few other updates to existing search features aimed at providing information more concisely so people won’t need to navigate to another website. These changes are part of Google’s effort to adapt to the smaller screens of smartphones that aren’t well suited for hopscotching across the Internet.

“So people won’t need to navigate to another website?” That’s the justification? And we’re ok with that? Your company has a website now that Google hopes no one will ever need to visit. They’ll just scrape your data and display it directly to searchers via Google.com.

Secondly, “these changes are part of Google’s effort to adapt to the smaller screens of smartphones…” Wait, that’s the web designer/developer’s job! Responsive design means your site is accessible via any device. Of course, not all websites are responsive at the moment, but it’s quickly becoming the new norm. But never mind that. Google’s just solved a problem for users trying to access sites that aren’t responsive, but those of us who do have responsive websites (and who have put lots of work into the design and functionality of those sites) will just have to accept that Google gets the first crack at your potential traffic.

I appreciate Google’s ostensible effort to provide information to users more efficiently, but I am more put off by their approach to become the source instead of the messenger. That’s a lot of power to give one company, and exactly the kind of practice that Google has punished other websites for in the past! I love the point Trevin Shirey makes in his post about the update:

… it’s clear what Google is really saying is “We will now scrape more data from 3rd party websites so people never have to leave Google.com.” Once Google starts fully answering search queries, there is no reason for people to leave Google. With Google crawling and caching nearly every page on the web, they can display snippets and data from web pages that can directly answer informational search queries.

Which, as Trevin also points out, is a hilarious contradiction to their own policy on scraping:

Some webmasters use content taken (“scraped”) from other, more reputable sites on the assumption that increasing the volume of pages on their site is a good long-term strategy regardless of the relevance or uniqueness of that content. Purely scraped content, even from high-quality sources, may not provide any added value to your users without additional useful services or content provided by your site; it may also constitute copyright infringement in some cases. It’s worthwhile to take the time to create original content that sets your site apart. This will keep your visitors coming back and will provide more useful results for users searching on Google.

HAHA! Oh, Google. Make up your mind.

What’s your take on the update? Webmasters, have you noticed any changes in your traffic or user behavior? Users, have you been pleasantly surprised by the improved efficiency of Google’s results lately?

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