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What Google’s Hummingbird means to your brand

Recently Google rolled out Hummingbird, the latest update to its search algorithm. The new code makes a number of changes that have a significant impact on how you need to structure your website to optimize your online brand experience and stay on top of search engine rankings.

Why does Google keep changing?

I’m often asked why Google keeps changing its search calculations. The reasons are complex but it mostly comes down to stopping the cheaters.

It mostly comes down to stopping the cheaters

Vast numbers of SEO fakers take advantage of loopholes in search engine functionality to cheat the system. You know those spam Emails promising a high ranking in a short time at ridiculously low cost? Referred to as “black hat” tactics, these shortcut approaches eventually bite the people who take advantage of them, but in the meantime these cheaters keep legitimate sites from ranking the way they should and they skew the entire web.

I recall how, even in the earliest days of the Internet, people would find creative ways to game the system, like setting text in white on a white background to fool search engines while being invisible to the person viewing the site. When keyword meta tags mattered, people used keywords that had nothing to do with the content on the site and that strategy had to be stopped. When links became important, fake link farms sprung up by the thousands so Google had to stop those. And on it goes. Staying ahead of cheats is a primary reason for wholesale changes to the search engine algorithms on a regular basis.

A look at the latest changes

While the previous update, Penguin, was primarily a way to end link farms, Hummingbird has added some interesting new developments that push search technology forward and reflect how web usage is changing. With a focus on mobile browsing, contextual search and natural-language intelligence, the newest update involves some very impressive technology.

Mobile Focus

Fact is, searches on mobile devices, currently at 46% of all searches, are taking over from those made on desktop computers. Google is responding to this reality by giving higher value to websites that are mobile friendly, so it has never been more important to have a responsive website design.

A mobile-friendly site must be your top priority

This must be the number one priority if you want your site to continue ranking high, and it must be the number one focus for your brand impression in the digital realm. Everything else is secondary. Those sites which are not responsive will, within the next year or so, become irrelevant online.

What does it mean, exactly, to have a mobile-responsive website? There are several ways your website can be mobile-friendly.

Three mobile approaches

There are essentially three ways to create a mobile-friendly site.

One way is to use a special URL specifically for mobile devices. Typically sites use a word like “mobile” or a letter such as “m” as the subdomain. For example, Facebook automatically goes to m.facebook.com when viewed on a mobile device. This approach requires considerable technical knowledge and can be challenging to maintain, as you’ll need an IT department to manage two distinctly separate websites. They can share the same data, but the technical aspect is daunting for most small businesses.

The most common approach is to create a “responsive” website that rearranges its content when viewed on a mobile device. For example, a wide page with side-by-side boxes or columns will rearrange to stack that content one above the other instead of side-by-side when viewed on a small screen. This enables the text to remain large enough to be easily legible no matter how small the browser size. Content can even be replaced or hidden from view on smaller devices. This does require considerable technical knowledge, but it’s only needed in the design stage. Once the site is built, these things take care of themselves and the people creating content hardly have to think about it at all.

The most common approach is to create a “responsive” website that rearranges its content when viewed on a mobile device

The third option is to use a plugin that converts the content to a mobile-friendly format. This can be the easiest approach for an existing site, but comes with a host of challenges for branding. These plugins will not respect the unique branding qualities of your website. Instead of the graphics, colors and font selections that carefully help to define your brand, people see generic content on their mobile devices that is distinctly un-branded. So this is not a recommended approach for those who care about their online brand impression.

The bottom line is that Google now looks for special CSS commands that indicate your site is paying attention to screen sizes and behaving appropriately no matter what device is used to view the website.

Scale up, not down

Many of the fundamentals of a good content strategy still apply. You still need to craft messages that resonate with your audience. You must know your typical audience profile. You need to monitor results and measure outcomes. What’s changed is that you now have to change your mindset: mobile is no longer just one consideration in a content strategy. It needs to be a central focus, and you have to ask tough questions about whether your site’s mobile experience is up to par in terms of design, content creation, and overall delivery.

In the old days, we scaled down existing content when viewed on mobile devices. As mobile moves toward becoming the dominant viewing platform, we need to start thinking of scaling up instead. That means thinking of the mobile site as the optimum experience and adding content for larger screens when the site is viewed that way. This may sound obvious but it’s not easy to think this way, especially for traditional web designers who are used to working first from the “best case” scenario of a massive browser window.

Localized emphasis

When people are at home or in the office, they are more likely to search from their desktop computer. When using a mobile device, they are typically “on the move” and likely looking for something fairly close by. Google is responding to this cultural change by giving special value to those businesses that are thinking local.

This means you have to tweak your website to meet local SEO pointers. This lets Google identify your site as a suitable result for local searches — especially if it’s mobile-friendly. Involvement in Google Places, Yelp and other ways to indicate a local business add to your search engine value.

Use Shorter Keywords

Naturally, when typing out a search phrase on a mobile device with its small keyboard or virtual keyboard, people are not interested in using lengthy phrases. Target shorter keywords if you want to show up on mobile searches more often. This means rethinking the keywords you have and finding shorter, more efficient ways to refer to them. Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects and ask what you would be typing if you were looking for your business on a smartphone while hurriedly finishing a meeting at a nearby coffee shop.

Keep in mind that people are more prone to tap the keyword suggestions that Google offers when they start searching for specific terms. Take note of Google’s recommendations and target your keywords based on them. You can get Google’s recommended keywords either while you begin searching for keyword phrases, or on Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool.

Put Users First

This is nothing new, but Google is making it increasingly important. You must focus your strategy on helping users find information on your website quickly and easily. Forcing users to resort to pinch-to-zoom should be avoided. Use mobile CSS attributes to replace or remove content that isn’t relevant or simply bogs down the site on a mobile device.

One pet peeve that I often run across is the use of large maps. When scrolling the map on a mobile device, you find yourself simply zooming or scrolling the map, with no way to access the rest of the page below. Unfortunately, Google itself is not helping here because the iframe HTML tag (used by Google Maps) does not respond to CSS references such as hiding it or changing its size. This forces designers to take unusually complex steps to get around this problem.

Most mobile phone users have fairly quick connections these days, but they are often paying for limited data packages and resources on these devices aren’t as fast as those on desktops and laptops. Make sure your site continues to load quickly even on these limited connections. This can be done by paying attention to image compression and being careful in how the site is designed. Just resizing the same huge graphic file to fill the width of a smaller screen doesn’t help because the device still has to load that oversized file in the first place.

Conclusion

With the latest changes, Google is saying that mobile is here to stay. If you want your brand to remain strong online and to beat the competition in a comparison, you have to get serious about ensuring that your branding is superior when experienced on a mobile device.

Having been at the forefront of web design since the earliest days of the Internet, the Adwiz can help you shape your design and content to take advantage of these and other developments to make your brand as strong as possible.

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George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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