Out with the old
If you asked people on the street to boil search engine optimization down to just one thing, it's pretty likely that most of them would choose 'keywords.'
It makes sense: keywords, or rather words in general, lay the groundwork for search engines to operate. Just as you or I use the "Find" function in a text document, search engines use the words we specify to scour the internet and return relevant results.
This reliance on keywords, combined with the challenge of determining relevancy, led to the proliferation of 'SEO copy.' Content written in this way is rich with the keyword(s) we want a given page to rank for.
Even if you have the most basic understanding of how search engines operate, it's still easy to see how keyword stuffing would be a possible solution. If a page mentions "jacket" or "jackets" 24 times in 400 words, it's safe to assume the content is about jackets. The problem is that this content is written (read: optimized) primarily with search engines in mind, and often sounds extremely unnatural to any living, breathing visitor. For example:
"Moe's Jacket Emporium is your home for men's jackets, women's jackets and kid's jackets. Our Denver jacket store offers you wholesale jacket prices on the finest jackets. Stay warm with winter jackets or hit the town in dress jackets. Our premium designer jackets are the best jackets Denver you'll find in Denver. Jacket, jacket, jacket."
The best jackets Denver? That's not even a real sentence! But in days past, if someone was looking for a local place to buy jackets in Denver, it's completely plausible that they might type "jackets denver" into the search. Techniques like this exploited a search engine's basic function to artificially boost rankings.
In with the new
Google's Panda update did a lot to devalue over-optimized content like the paragraph above. Now, with Hummingbird, Google is making search even smarter, and it's because we are changing the way we search.
Sure, people may still search for "jackets denver" when they're sitting at home on their computer, but as anyone who reads this blog knows, internet usage is going mobile and search is a big part of that. As more and more smartphones incorporate voice-command capabilities, search is becoming increasingly conversational.
What would be "jackets denver" at the keyboard might now be "Where can I buy a jacket in Denver?" or "Where can I buy a jacket nearby?"
Hummingbird, in essence, is an attempt by Google to no longer find just relevant content, but to understand what you really want and attempt to answer your questions as well.
How does this change what you do?
How Hummingbird affects you completely depends on how you've been operating to this point. The fact that Google was able to silently put Hummingbird into action for almost a month before announcing it speaks volumes.
On occasion, earlier updates had drastic, instant effects on search engine rankings. Had Hummingbird made sweeping changes to the 'rankings game,' SEO professionals and experts everywhere would have been running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to figure out what was happening.
For those that have been following the rules, there should be little change. For those that have used 'black hat' techniques in an attempt to cheat the system, they'll only find those methods to be even less effective than before.
Quality, Original, Sharable Content
As we've said many times, it's all about content. If you're providing original, useful, quality content to your visitors, you'll do just fine. What might need to change is the way in which you approach content creation.
If you only read part of this article, start here:
Write naturally. Write to your audience, not to search engines. Google's algorithm has improved by leaps and bounds since 1998, and it doesn't need you to optimize a page for a specific keyword or key phrase in the same way as you did before. If you're writing content, don't stuff keywords where you think they'll do the most good. Instead, write so it reads well; use synonyms to make your point without repeating yourself multiple times. Keywords and terms are still important, but if your content is on topic they'll undoubtedly be sprinkled throughout, and Google can recognize that.
For your existing content, consider the questions someone might be asking when they're looking for you, or a business like yours. Does the content on your site provide answers to those questions? With Google embracing the conversational, question-based searching that mobile technology has created, it will only become more important to understand it.