Google Hummingbird SEO Case Study

This graph shows how my client survived (and thrived) thanks to a Google Hummingbird update.

Organic Search Engine Marketing used to be so straightforward. Make sure your on-page signals (URL, title, headings, alt text, keyword density, etc.) were good and then generate back-links with optimized anchor text. Alas, those days are long gone. Google’s algorithm updates can whipsaw your keyword rankings by three or four pages at a time, almost overnight. Today’s #5 ranking is tomorrow’s #45.

Google’s latest algorithm, nicknamed Hummingbird, went live on August 20, 2013. It was much more than an algorithm update, however. Google completely replaced the entire search engine. Previous updates like Panda and Penguin simply updated parts of the algorithm. This was like swapping out the engine in your car.

The goal was to get better at “conversational search.” In its Hummingbird FAQ, Search Engine Land described it this way:

Hummingbird should better focus on the meaning behind the words. It may 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.

In particular, Google said that Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.

Let’s dive into this case study and see how the algorithm updates lifted this client’s ranking and decimated their competitors.

Google Hummingbird Loves Answers

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Let’s take a look at this particular case study and see what happened. The keyword in question is “machine alignment.” The green lines in the graph represent pages on the client’s site that ranked for this keyword. Originally, their homepage ranked #43 in Google for this keyword. Then, we published a blog post in April that debuted at #24 for the same keyword. This alone illustrates the power blogs hold over search results.

If you follow the “Blog Post” line in the graph, you can see that its ranking jumped from #22 to #7 in late August: This was the same time frame as the Google Hummingbird update. Since then it dipped a little and then climbed right back to #7, where it continues to outrank its competitors for this important organic keyword. Notice how the company represented by the red line has been vanquished from the first page of search results. They dipped as low as #49 and currently sit at #37.

Google Hummingbird keyword ranking history


This gets really interesting when you deconstruct the blog post and its keywords. The keyword “machine alignment” never appears once on the page! The title of the post is “How to Align Machines.” I believe that this provides a perfect illustration of how sophisticated Google is becoming and exactly what the goal of Google Hummingbird is. Obviously, their algorithm can make the semantic translation from a phrase like “machine alignment” to a related question like “How to align machines.”

In my book, this is a major game changer. It’s going to fundamentally change the way I develop keyword strategies. My keyword research process won’t change, but the way that I interpret the results and optimize for them will change substantially. Here are my thoughts about the implications of Google Hummingbird.

Blog or Die

Getting your site to rank without blogging has been getting progressively harder and this is one more nail in the coffin for sites that don’t blog. And it’s the Mother of All Nails, in my view. This new semantic language processor looks pretty darn smart and so success is going to depend on moving away from describing yourself to answering questions. What better medium to do that than a blog?

Case in point: The original title of this blog post was going to be “Google Hummingbird Case Study: Semantic Search In Action.” It’s a good title for old search algorithms and for humans alike. But in the middle of writing this article, I thought I should probably take my own advice and modify the title so that it answers a question. We’ll see how it works!

Pay Attention

One of my most-repeated lines is, “Traffic don’t pay the bills.” Most businesses – if they’re watching any analytics at all – focus only on website visits. It’s an important data point but it’s not a particularly meaningful metric. All of these changes and Google’s recent elimination of keyword referrals mean that it’s crucial that businesses use professional SEO tools to monitor their ranking performance on a regular basis. Just look at the violent swings in the chart above if you don’t believe me.

Be Nimble

I started harping on the Social Media Doppler Effect a year ago. While companies are adapting to Google algorithm changes and social media, many of them aren’t moving quickly enough. They’re falling further behind despite their efforts to adapt. In my opinion, nimbleness is going to be the single most important factor for online marketing success over the near future.

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