With its August 20th update, code named “Hummingbird,” Google made the biggest change to its search algorithm in over a decade. According to Search Engine Land, the change has affected 90% of all searches worldwide. Odds are you and your end users have experienced the update many times over by now, though you may not have known what or why. Google describes the update as both a great advancement and a rather inconspicuous change. So what gives? In this feature, PNConnect provides a brief overview of what’s different, what’s the same, and how Hummingbird’s approach should be a factor in how you create content for the Web and mobile devices.
But a number of factors have changed that. As Google’s own algorithms have gotten smarter and more sophisticated, as the use of Search within the mobile context has counterbalanced the desktop, and as voice interfaces for Search have proliferated, Search behavior looks very different today and favors longer, more sentence-like queries. This change has been significant enough that Google has, in turn, changed the way it looks at Search queries to focus on the entire context in addition to the component parts. They’ve used the catchphrase “things, not strings” to sum it up. Whereas previous updates have focused on getting better and better at individual pieces of the puzzle, Google’s new focus is on the whole query and the context in which it was given, and on chunks of meaning as opposed to traditional keywords.
The difference? One is a Boolean statement; the other is a conversational question. With this new approach, Google is getting even more sophisticated about seeking answers to the question rather than just finding content that seems to be strongly related to a set of keywords. This manifests itself in a number of ways – mainly, it should provide more satisfying results. But, for example, Google also now makes the distinction between broad and detailed “evergreen” content and more ephemeral content, presenting the former as its own feature within Search results.
When it comes to SEO, this is a re-statement and re-emphasis of what Google has always been about in Search – matching up people looking for particular information, answers, or entities with the most valuable and helpful set of stuff that addresses the need. The SEO community had a strong reaction to Hummingbird, but according to Google’s Matt Cutts, this has been mostly a change in “quality” and not something that should impact approaches to SEO all that much. He can say this because Google has always held the position that good quality content that’s (a) smartly structured and (b) designed to address real user needs wins out, and attempting to shape content into what it isn’t by keyword manipulation isn’t a viable long-term strategy. So it’s a massive change in that under the hood, Google is now focusing on that holistic approach and using the 200+ factors that have traditionally gone in to their algorithm as “filters”; but it’s not that big a change, because it’s simply the next evolution of Google’s modeling of the real-world market of Searchers and information.
Google’s Matt Cutts on The Evolution of Search
Each issue, we hear from a digital or social media program leader. This month we talk to Christopher Barger, PNConnect’s SVP of Global Programs.
What role do you play at Porter Novelli?
I play a senior strategic counselor and strategist role across the Porter Novelli network, working with our teams and clients around the world to build or refine digital strategies that reflect and achieve their business objectives. I’ve consulted or met with companies like SanDisk, HP, Disney Parks, Braun, and the World Health Organization. I’m also the digital strategy lead on our Almond Board of California team. Finally, I’m responsible for building and leading the “Learning” portion of PNConnect – determining what our digital professionals need to know and master about their craft to help our clients and represent PNC, and how best to convey and share that knowledge.
What developments on the Web are you most excited about right now?
From a platform standpoint, I’m watching Medium. I like the format, and with the track record of its founders and the money behind it right now, I think they bear watching closely. At a macro level, I’m quite pleased to see “social media” (broadly defined) becoming so much more widely accepted by and integrated into business communications and marketing programs. It’s better for the companies and organizations that integrate digital into their overall programs, and as the industry moves further in this direction, it lessens the influence and volume of the “social media ninja” types who know how to use the tools but have no real experience or idea how to apply those tools to benefit a brand.
What one thing would you change about the digital landscape today?
Anonymity. I know that originally anonymity was allowed – even encouraged – to fuel creativity and protect people’s right to expression. But when I see the trolling behavior that both brands and individuals face online every day – everything from name calling to direct threats – it makes me sad for the squandered opportunity for real dialogue. It makes me think, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” We all know the famous cases – the threats at women politicians in the UK on Twitter, the bullying of media personalities in Australia, or the vigilante “justice” we see invoked when anyone annoys or offends the political sensibilities of certain internet communities – but less renowned situations around trolling happen every day, to both brands and individuals. Sadly, anonymity can bring out the profane, the ugly, and the worst of human nature. It’s a betrayal of everything the interactive Web was supposed to be about, and I’d get rid of it if I could.
What are the toughest challenges you and your clients are facing?
Internal turf wars and battles for who “owns” social media or digital. It’s funny – the external environment continues to pretty seamlessly blend or blur the lines between entertainment and information; between marketing, communications and advertising; between brand and individual. But inside many organizations, we haven’t caught up to those blurred lines. People still want to see digital categorized into one bucket for leadership and resources, and too often those categorizations are exclusive rather than inclusive, with groups inside companies jockeying for position and control rather than trying to develop a program that’s best for both the audience and the overall brand.
What’s one thing you see differently now compared to a year ago?
The nice thing about the maturation of the social media space is that being “first” to a new platform, or ever just being on that platform, is no longer sufficient to impress an audience. It’s pretty much expected at this point. But that means that there’s an awful lot of content out there, much of it not very good. Now effective digital programs actually have to stand out from all the machine-pumped or formulaic stuff. So you’re seeing brands having to be more sophisticated in their approach and more strategic in their planning to actually cut through the noise to make a real impact and reach people.
BlogHer is one of the largest blogging conferences held each year and a prime opportunity for brands to build relationships with influential bloggers. Though this year’s conference had a sell-out attendance of 4,000 bloggers from across the country, it can be difficult to stand out among the more than 70 brands in attendance.
Nature Made faced that challenge this year as a sponsor. To maximize their sponsorship and ensure bloggers received key messages about the brand, Nature Made hosted a healthy breakfast event for some of the premiere bloggers attending BlogHer ’13.
At PNConnect, research-based insights help us create effective digital strategies for our clients. And in a new report, Digital Demographics USA, we are publishing some research of our own. We’ve drilled into the online behaviors of the 59% of Americans who regularly spend time on a social network, to reveal the unique mindsets of Millennials, Generation X, Boomers and the Silent Generation, then overlaid the implications for brands and organizations. Based on data from Porter Novelli’s PNStyles survey of more than 6,000 Americans, the full report can be downloaded here.
How many members does the Group have? Do you see interesting conversations, or do you see a lot of self-promotion? Is it a ghost town? Are any of your contacts also in the Group? Digging a bit initially will help make sure you choose the right Group and avoid any wasted effort on your part.
For more information about our team and approach, or to learn how we can help your organization with digital strategy, development and measurement, please visit the PNConnect site.
Our feature on Google’s Hummingbird update came from Chad Hyett in New York and Dave Coustan in Atlanta. Valerie Elston in Washington, D.C., contributed our case study on Nature Made’s BlogHer event, and Rebeca Mueller in Winter Haven contributed her guide to LinkedIn Groups. Chris Thilk in Chicago and Chad Hyett contributed stories and insights for the Social Networking Stats, Advertising Trends, and Noteworthy News sections, and Amanda Wu provided the latest stats. Helen Nowicka in Washington, D.C., shared our Digital Demographics USA infographic. Christopher Barger in Detroit took center stage for the Spotlight, and Andy Stoltzfus in San Francisco provided the photo for our cover page. Some backgrounds courtesy of subtlepatterns.com. The Twitter eggs photo was uploaded to Flickr by Garrett Heath, some rights reserved.
Thanks to Jennifer Laker, John Ciacia, Peter Schiebel, Jeremy Harrington, and Sean O’Shaughnessy from the Platforms team for providing design and development support, and to Mary Gaulke, Josh Hallett, Dave Coustan, Tom Harris and Lauren Sandelin for editorial oversight and proofing.
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