Here, James fills us in on how his presentation came to be and what he hoped people walked away learning.
Why did you decide to speak about Hummingbird for content strategists?
I was just curious. When Google debuted Hummingbird, there was this major confusion on the SEO blogs I was reading. They were saying “Hummingbird’s this” and “Hummingbird’s that” “we don’t really know what’s going on yet.” At the time, I was working with a lot of SEOs and they weren’t even thinking about it. So I decided I was going to go out and see what this was all about—what the factors are that are contributing to it, why it occurs and what the implications are.
I read patents and I looked at opinions. I corroborated multiple sources to find out what was really happening and what Google was saying about it all. I compiled this all into one place and thought, essentially, this is the way that Google is moving and the way they’re trying to rank things. Then I tried to explain it in a way that would make sense to people who were creating content.
How have you incorporated this into your work now?
A lot of what Hummingbird values is doing real marketing and PR. Links are still important, and having specific keywords on the page is still important, but they’re not the only things anymore. I think for a long time that was the only thing to do in SEO—”how many keywords can I put on a page and how many links can I get to it?” and that was it.
Now the pie is much bigger and there are many other things to concentrate on, like building relationships with customers and doing customer research to find out what people actually want to read about and want to know. That’s really how I incorporate it into my own work.
You talked about co-occurence and how companies might rank for keywords including their competitor’s company name. How do you get around co-occurence if it’s not working in your favor?
Number one, just be awesome at what you do. I think Google is getting better and better at being able to differentiate what people are really asking for. For instance, the example that I used in the talk was people looking for “online photoshop.” In that case, Pixlr comes up in the first two spots and then Photoshop. But if you search for “photoshop online,” Photoshop takes the first two spots and then Pixlr is the two underneath that.
There’s a completely different intent in the way that you put those two words together. I think in the old Google “online photoshop” and “photoshop online” would essentially be the same query, but now Google’s saying “well semantically, if I say ‘online photoshop’ what I’m looking for is an online tool that’s like Photoshop, but if I’m searching for ‘photoshop online,’ I’m looking for the brand name Photoshop, and places where I can access it online.”
So the bottom line is to be very clear about who you are and what you do. It’s not guaranteed that you won’t run into those problems, but Google is getting better at figuring out the intent of a query and really finding what the best result should be.
As a result, it’s getting harder for affiliates and resellers to suck traffic away from brands in branded search queries, without the brand having to do much SEO improvement on their part.
Do you think people will start gaming the concept of entity?
Probably. When online marketers find what they perceive to be a “quick fix” or an easy way to game the system—like editing Freebase—history tells us they’ll exploit it.
On the other hand, though, I think it’s getting harder to exploit those systems. Even if anyone can go in and edit Freebase, at the same time, it’s not the only source that Google looks to for information. I think some of those other sources are perhaps harder to manipulate where they require peer editing, which cuts down on the ease with which people can game those things.
For example, it’s really easy to create a Google+ profile and put up any information you want in there, but it’s harder to create a Wikipedia page that is reviewed by other editors and put your information there. If you are AwesomeSecuritySystems.com, just a reseller of security systems, sure you can go to Freebase and create an entry and you can create a Google+ profile, but you can’t go to Wikipedia—they’re not going to want you to build an entry for AwesomeSecuritySystems.com. It’s just not going to work.
Google takes into account thousands of websites and how other people talk about your domain and what your brand is. If you’re a reseller of security systems, people aren’t going to talk about you the same way they would about an ADT or Vivint or one of the other big security companies. And that’s what’s getting harder to control.
It seems like from the questions that you got after your talk that a lot of content strategists don’t have a firm grasp on SEO. Why do you think that is, and is it critical for content strategists to incorporate SEO into their work?
It is critical. I was surprised at the number of people I talked to before my breakout session, who when I told them I was speaking about “Hummingbird for Content Strategists,” they would ask what Hummingbird is. And from the questions I got in the Q&A portion of my talk, it seems like a lot of content strategists barely know where to start when it comes to SEO.
I think it’s becoming much more important for content creators to understand how content is published and discovered on the Internet. In a way, optimizing your content for search is getting easier to understand and easier to integrate into the whole content creation process. Why would you create content and put it out there and have someone else come in and optimize it later? If you’re doing the content creation and putting it in a CMS or working with a developer to get it published, well why not integrate that stuff as you’re doing that along the way?
I think that’s especially important for small companies, non-profits, and even government and higher education—those people who don’t have huge SEO resources. If content professionals can learn a small amount of basic SEO, they’ll get 90 percent of the way there. All of the other super heavy keyword analysis, back-linking profiles and pattern analysis, that’s what you do when you’ve already gotten 90 percent there.
Content strategists must not be afraid of SEO. In my presentation, I was trying to show that this isn’t scary, in some ways they’re already doing it. Just keep it in mind and get more interested in some of the nitty gritty parts of SEO. I didn’t cover this in my talk, but my hope is that people will start to get curious about headers and titles and other simple, HTML-based optimization practices. A lot of people have asked me where to get started with this and I’ve been referring them to Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO. It’s basic, it’s written for an audience that doesn’t know anything about SEO, and it gets you almost all the way to where you need to be.
What do you think about how your session was received? A few people thought that you were being harsh toward SEOs. Can you see your talk from their point of view?
People tended to have strong reactions to one slide in my talk which said “It is easier to teach content creators SEO than it is to teach SEOs to create good content.” I think within the context of my presentation that made sense to people. Learning to make content and how to engage people emotionally is a learned skill that you need to develop over time. It’s not a series of tactics or principles; it’s what we do by creating content over and over again.
I was thrown off by the reaction it had in the room to be honest because it was such a very small part of what I was talking about. The audience of content strategists seemed to react strongly and favorably, and made me think that maybe there’s a lot more frustration on the part of content creators with SEOs than I thought. For the past 5 to 10 years, writers and other content creators have been told by SEOs to optimize their content in a way that the content creators perceive as making it worse or less user-friendly.
Back when I was a freelance writer, I used to get this stuff all the time. SEO companies would contact me and say, “Hey, I want a 300-word blog post. I don’t care what it’s about. Just put this keyword in three times, and in the first instance link to this URL, and in the third instance link to this other URL.” And I think that’s the way a lot of content creators still see SEO. I think that’s why there’s a big frustration in the content strategy community.
Unfortunately, they thought I was saying to throw your SEOs out the door, but that really wasn’t my intent. In fact, I’ve had some interactions with a couple of SEOs since then, who reacted negatively to it, and I can see some of the error of what I did. Instead of trying to build a bridge between those two different communities, I was creating a greater divide. If I talk about this again in the future I want to make sure it’s clear I’m not trying to cause a rift. I just want to teach content creators who don’t know where to start with SEO, that it’s not that scary and that they can learn the basics pretty easily.
For more SEO for content strategy knowledge, be sure to follow James on Twitter and check out his blog post with further details on how content strategists can use Hummingbird to their advantage. Leave your thoughts and questions in the comments below!