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The impact of Google’s Hummingbird update demonstrated

Earlier in the week, I mentioned Google’s new (and major) update, which put a new engine behind the search results. It hasn’t shocked most businesses, I suspect, although it probably laid the foundations for Google to be able to make plenty of changes in the future. Search engine experts who’ve been looking at the update report that it has been designed to focus on “the meaning behind the words”, which might perhaps result in it answering questions better, or taking people more directly to relevant pages inside a site.

However, I should thank reader Richard O’Connor, who has noticed a significant impact on the Google results for generic searches on the product which his own company supplies – let’s call them “blue widgets”. Earlier in the year, he could see that the top results for a search on “blue widgets” would include plenty of manufacturers’ websites amongst the explanatory ones such as Wikipedia. Now, however, he says: “many of the commercial organisations have dropped away from the top page and have been replaced by more informative pages with titles such as ‘what is a blue widget’ and even a YouTube video with the same title.

“What I have found”, he continues, “is that in May, 7 out of the top 10 results were commercial, whereas today only 4 of the top 10 are commercial, and all 4 of those have good information on their landing pages.”

Even more interestingly, Richard found that the search “where can I buy a blue widget” is now dominated by results such as eBay and Alibaba; the search “what is a blue widget” gives results such as Wikipedia and Wisegeek; and the search “who makes a blue widget” returns almost exclusively manufacturers. I’ve now performed the same tests for some of our clients, and this does seem to generally be the case.

Does this matter? Well, it may have a significant impact on the traffic you get from Google if you happen to have been one of the top results for generic searches on your products (e.g “blue widgets”) without having written any good background. Let’s look at the example of “pneumatic cylinders”, which I described in an article this time last year. You might like to re-read that. One year on, when I make the same search, the top three positions remain unchanged, but two manufacturers who held positions on the first page of results have gone completely, and two others have fallen from positions 4 and 6, to 9 and 10. None of those four manufacturers added much to the general sum of all human knowledge on pneumatic cylinders, to be honest.

However, I suspect Google is far from finished with improving this search. One of the big winners over the last year is neither a big name manufacturer, nor one which seems to have provided anything worthwhile on its website. It just seems to have been in the right place to take advantage of others’ misfortune. I’d be amazed if it lasts.

What we have to ask ourselves is this: do we even want the traffic Google sends us for searches on “blue widgets”? If Google is right, and the sentiment behind most searches using just that term is to learn about the product, maybe the traffic is not that important. Being on the first page for “buy blue widgets”, however, may be a lot more productive. If we search for “buy pneumatic cylinders”, RS Components and eBay leap to the top, and some of the manufacturers close behind have “buy” and “next day” prominently in their page titles. Which is probably how it should be.

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