In late September, Google announced it had been gradually rolling out Hummingbird, a completely new search algorithm. The algorithm emphasizes semantic search and focuses on understanding the meaning behind the user query rather than simply trying to match instances of words in its Web index.
Take a look at Danny Sullivan’s great FAQ for more specifics on what’s changed.
Hummingbird Unprecedented In Scope
This significant change in the core underpinnings of search has a lot of folks wondering about its impact on their business. (When combined with the recent spike in Not Provided, it makes for a pretty nail-biting time in the industry.)
We’ve been through algorithm changes before, but the substantiality of Hummingbird is fairly unprecedented.
From Danny’s FAQ:
When’s the last time Google replaced its algorithm this way?
Google struggled to recall when any type of major change like this last happened. In 2010, the “Caffeine Update” was a huge change. But that was also a change mostly meant to help Google better gather information (indexing) rather than sorting through the information. Google search chief Amit Singhal told me that perhaps 2001, when he first joined the company, was the last time the algorithm was so dramatically rewritten.
The scope of this change has us wondering how Google makes such a change. More specifically, how does Google measure “success” in their algorithm changes?
I recently came across an interesting article on Quora that took this question head on, asking: How does Google measure improvements in their search algorithm?
There was but one brave soul willing to take on how the black box that is Google’s algorithm might be evaluated, but his answer leaves the reader with food for thought and, as of this writing, has been upvoted 180 times.
The author, who claims to have received his information from Amit Singhal, Lead of Google Search, says that when rolling out an algorithm change, Google first does so to a small slice of users, and then exhaustively measures user response to the new search results.
That part is not earth shattering, but the part that is interesting is his description of what Google evaluates in determining the “success” of the algorithm change. The full comment is worth a read, but I’ll zero in on a few of the criteria he suggests Google uses:
- Search Exit: The number of searches a visitor makes immediately before leaving the site. (This is essentially “bounce rate” for the SERPs.)
- Search Refinement: The number of times a visitors searches again immediately after performing a search.
- Time After Search: The amount of time the searcher spends on the site before bouncing back.
The theme that emerges from each of the above is that Google is looking to evaluate searcher satisfaction. That is: what does searcher behavior say about how satisfied they are with the search result they clicked on?
If true, Google’s focus on “discovering searcher satisfaction” in the SERPs has very real implications for search marketers. For some, there will be a “knew that, old news” response — but for others, the implications will be eye-opening and may result in a substantial shift in the way they approach search marketing going forward.
If the old way of doing things in search was to focus on ranking in the search results and stop there, the new paradigm that acknowledges Google’s focus on measuring and discovering searcher satisfaction takes into account that as search marketers, we need to consider more than “how are we ranking for X query?”
Now, in the “searcher satisfaction” and post-Hummingbird world that has Google more closely scrutinizing the degree to which users are satisfied with their search result than at any time in its 15+ year history, there is a shift in thinking that has the online marketer asking, “How satisfied have I left the searcher with their information retrieval experience?” That means asking new questions that extend beyond “where am I ranking” to include:
- How satisfied is the searcher with the information I am presenting? (Content Quality)
- How satisfied is the user with the way I am presenting the information? (Look & Feel/UI)
- How satisfied is the user with their ability to navigate through the site and discover additional information? (Site Structure/Navigation)
We, as site owners, have the tendency to micro-focus on the “success” or “failure” of a particular keyword or subset of keywords in the SERPs. But if the evaluative methods described above are accurate, and Google is carefully measuring how satisfied a searcher is with an individual result, we can be sure they are also taking careful note of how a domain overall resonates with searchers.
How satisfied are searchers with content, not just for “X” search result, but in aggregate for all search results for which your domain appears? How often do searchers click back and then click on another result or try a new search? How does that bounce/re-search rate compare to your competitors? A negative answer to these questions is likely to impact how your domain appears in the search results.
Step Back & Evaluate The Full Searcher Experience
So, what does this mean for you?
The paradigm that has existed until this point has been: focus on the search results. In other words, for many, the primary measure of success has been strictly whether or not I appear in the search results.
In the “searcher satisfaction” landscape, there are considerations that extend beyond rankings.
To make sure you are in sync with Google’s thinking and being as successful as you can be in the SERPs, here are three key questions you can ask:
- Content Quality: Is the content I am presenting to the user a thorough and comprehensive answer to their question/problem?
- Look and Feel: Am I appealing to both the text/informational side of the searcher’s brain and the visual side of the brain?
- Site structure/Navigation: Have I made it easy for visitors to find content beyond the page they landed on?
“Searcher satisfaction” is not a new concept. But with the recent launch of Hummingbird, now is a good time for search marketers to revisit whether they are sufficiently in sync with the way Google evaluates search results. You may not be able to fully control every one of them, but developing good answers to the three questions outlined above will go a long way in making sure you are taking steps in the right direction.