We've come a long way in a little over two decades of search. Archie, Veronica, Jughead, Excite, Wanderer, Aliweb, Altavista, WebCrawler, Yahoo, Lycos, LookSmart, Google, HotBot, Ask, dmoz, AllTheWeb, Goto (Overture), Snap, LiveSearch, Cuil, Bing, Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Yandex, Baidu... and too many other also-rans to name.
The earliest were simply a collection of resources, initially just in alphabetical order, then some introducing an internal search capability. Eventually, some began to crawl the web, while others contented themselves with using the indexes of others.
Among them all, Google now stands out as the giant. About two-thirds of all global searches happen on Google. So that means that those of us who want our sites to be found in Google's search results need to color between the (webmaster guide)lines, while trying to figure out what Google wants to see, today and hopefully, tomorrow.
Figuring out what Google prefers to rank isn't really that complex. Pay attention, use some common sense, don't look for silver bullets, and provide quality and value. Get that down pat and you're in pretty good shape.
Most folks who find themselves crosswise of Google got there because they (or someone they hired) tried to take a shortcut. Do shortcuts still work? You bet! Do they still last? Not so much!
Google has gotten a lot better at detecting and handling manipulative tactics. No, they're not perfect – not by a far cry. But the improvement is undeniable, and a couple of recent developments offer hope.
Google unleashed a one-two punch recently, with two important changes that stirred up a lot of chatter in SEO and marketing communities. And I'm not convinced they're unrelated. They just mesh too well to be coincidence (not to be confused with correlation, my friends).
1. '(Not Provided)'
The recent extension to "(not provided)" for 100 percent of organic Google keywords in Google Analytics got a lot of people up in arms. It was called "sudden", even though it ramped up over a period of two years. I guess "it suddenly dawned on me" would be more accurate.
As my bud, Thom Craver, stated perfectly, if you're one of those who is saying that no keywords means SEO is dead or you can't do your job, then you shouldn't be doing SEO to begin with.
That sums it up pretty well. There are still ways to know what brought users to your pages. It's just not handed to you on a silver platter any more. You'll have to actually work for it.
Now let's look at the other half of that double-tap: Hummingbird. Since Google's announcement of the new search algorithm, there have been a lot of statements that fall on the inaccurate end of the scale. One common theme seems to be referring to it as the biggest algo update since Caffeine.
Wrong on both counts, folks! First, Caffeine is a software set for managing the hardware that crawls and indexes, not search. As such, it's not an algorithm. It was also new, not updated, but we'll let that slide.
That second point, however, applies strongly to Hummingbird. There is no such thing as a Hummingbird update. It's a brand new search algorithm.
Jeez-Louise. if you're going to speak out, at least try not to misinform, OK?
Why Might they be Related?
Now understand, there's a bit of conjecture from here on out. I can't point to any evidence that supports this theory, but I think many of you will agree it makes some sense.
Killing the easy availability of keywords makes sense to me. People have focused on keywords to a degree that approaches (and often passes) ridiculous. Google has finally, however, achieved a sufficient level of semantic ability to allow them to ascertain, with a reasonable amount of accuracy, what a page is about, without having exact keywords to match to a query.
Methinks it's a good idea for the folks who are generating content to try the same.
So... we can no longer see the exact keywords that visitors used to find us in organic search. And we no longer need to use exact keywords to be able to rank in organic search.
Yeah, I know, pure correlation. But still, a pattern, no?
My theory is that there's no coincidence there. In fact, I think it runs deeper.
Think about it. If you're no longer targeting the keywords, you can actually *gasp* target the user. Radical concept for folks who are still stuck in a 2005 rut.
Bottom line: You need to start building your content with concept and context in mind. That'll result in better content, more directed to your visitors – then you can stop worrying about whether Google has a clue about the topic your page is focused on.
Just communicate. If you do it right, it'll come through, for both. Just think things, not strings.
Where is Search Heading Next?
Here's where I think the Knowledge Graph plays a major role. I've said many times that I thought Google+ was never intended to be a social media platform; it was intended to be an information harvester. I think that the data harvested was intended to help build out the Knowledge Graph, but that it goes still deeper.
Left to its own devices, Google could eventually build out the Knowledge Graph. But it would take time, and it would undoubtedly involve a lot of mistakes, as they dialed their algos in.
With easily verified data via Google+, Google has a database against which they can test their algos' independent findings. That would speed the development process tremendously, probably shaving two or three years off the process.
But my theory doesn't end there. Although I suspect it wasn't a primary motivation, the removal of keywords, coupled with the improved semantic ability of Hummingbird, puts a whole new level of pressure on people to implement structured data. As adoption cranks up, the Knowledge Graph will be built out even faster.
As I said, I doubt that motivating people to implement structured data markup was a primary focus of the recent changes. But I'll bet it was a major benefit that didn't go unnoticed at the 'Plex.
The last week has definitely brought some changes to the way we'll be handling our online marketing and SEO efforts. The Internet continues to evolve. Those who don't follow suit may soon be extinct.
For my part, I'm pleased to see the direction that Google seems to be moving in. It's a win-win.