Two significant changes in the world of search and content occurred recently involving Google—the move to secure search or “(not provided)” and the Hummingbird update.
Secure search is the inability to get keyword-specific traffic data from search analytics. Google has now committed to 100 percent secure search, so for every keyword search that comes to your site, it will be listed as “(not provided)” within analytics systems.
“This is obviously a big deal for marketers because in order to understand how search is performing for a site you need to have a relatively good understanding of what people are actually doing on your site when they come to it via search,” said Ray Grieselhuber, GinzaMetrics CEO, during a recent Google Hangout.
To get a complete picture, people often use a combination of data, like rankings and search volume, along with visits, conversions and revenue coming from analytics packages like Google Analytics. Secure search removes an important piece of data that marketers rely on in order to make decisions on how to optimize their ongoing search campaigns.
“It heralds in a new era of a changing focus, away from keyword-based search optimization and management into something that’s much more focused on content,” said Grieselhuber.
Meanwhile, the Google Hummingbird announcement can be viewed as a part of the growing content marketing story. SEO is quickly becoming one of the pillars behind content marketing, and it shifts marketers’ focus away from keywords and looking at a broader picture to understand intent. Once companies begin to understand their audience better, higher-quality content can be created.

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Differences between Google Hummingbird & “(Not Provided)”

Google’s Hummingbird update announcement and the move toward becoming 100 percent “(not provided)” are often being grouped together in conversations; however, the two topics are different.
“There is a relationship between them over the long term, but there’s not an explicit relationship, and there’s not a specific connection on the technology side,” said Grieselhuber.
Hummingbird is an algorithm change, one of Google’s largest updates in the last 10 years. It moves search queries and behavior away from focusing purely on keywords and short searches like “pizza locations nearby” to more conversational search. For example, the types of questions asked on Quora are longer, more natural language queries.
Hummingbird was designed to help Google keep up with ongoing changes in search behavior.  People are searching for more nuanced topics and seek very specific results. Short keyword phrases are not equipped to provide the best results. Mobile is also having an impact on how people search.
In contrast, the move toward 100% not provided data, labeled by Google as secure search, was a technology decision made to encrypt keywords that people are searching on to find new sites. It is not an algorithm update like Hummingbird.
In the long term, Hummingbird and secure search are indirectly related because now you aren’t able to get keyword-specific data from your analytics. You are forced to rely on two things:

  1. A content-centric analytics approach to measure your performance
  2. Increased reliance on technology that enables you to model data to understand what people are looking for and tie learnings back to your content.

Secure search pushes us in that direction and the Hummingbird algorithm dovetails with that because there is an increased focus on topics vs. keywords.

Key Takeaways for Marketers: Hummingbird

  • Get to know Google. Marrying social marketing and search into a larger content marketing strategy makes Google more important to marketers than ever before.
  • Get comfortable with change. Grieselhuber suggests that marketers understand that they are in a world that is dynamic. “…We’re going to see tons of changes over the next few years.”
  • Semantic search is in its very early stages. Lots of work remains for many in the search industry to make semantic search a reality, so there is no need to switch your entire marketing strategy immediately. Algorithms have to be trained to be effective and that requires lots of data. Google released Hummingbird likely in early September (exact date is unknown), and as people start to update their sites with more structured data and behaviors continue to change, Google will make more updates down the road.
  • Skate toward where the puck is moving. Place a broader focus on meaning and intent in all of your content creation. Get to know your audience better and spend time learning about semantic search’s history and principles.

Key Takeaways for Marketers: Secure Search

  • Collect & archive data. This is probably the last chance you will have to collect and archive as much data as you can. Make sure that your data is safely preserved. It may not be helpful 4-5 years from now, but it can be useful in the next 6 months to 1 year.
  • Revaluate your analytics technology. Pure analytic solutions such as Google will no longer be sufficient because they have removed an important data set that almost enables an entirely new market to replace Google Analytics.
  • Train teams & executives on how to measure search performance. Measurement will change in a content centric and semantic search world. Make sure that your teams and execs are up to speed on the changes.

Global timeline for secure search & Hummingbird

Google has rolled out all major algorithm updates over the last few years starting in the US and international markets tend to have more time. The company tends to roll out to English-speaking areas and then into Spanish-speaking countries in Europe, followed by Asia.
Grieselhuber says that with Asia specifically there are likely some language and technology issues that slow down the rollout of secure search and Hummingbird; however, in the long term, Google will be consistent with some nuances.

Side effects of ongoing Google updates

Search is often shrouded in a cloud of mystery, and Grieselhuber believes that these ongoing changes are not helping to demystify SEO. In fact, he thinks they may be confusing them further.
“Keywords are very easy for people to understand, and now we’re moving in to this world where it’s not just about keywords, which are essentially just strings of text, but it’s about understanding their meaning,” said Grieselhuber.
It’s relatively easy to understand the relationship between the proper name of a person or place, but it’s more difficult to understand how the relationship between those two or more objects can change search results.
Understanding more about semantic search and the mechanics behind Hummingbird (to the degree that we are able to) will help marketers alleviate confusion.

The impact of search engine changes

Search engine users are adapting to using Google Now, although many may not know it by that name. Upon searching a growing number of specific terms, Google shows more dynamic content.
For example, when you do a query on weather today it’s going to show a calendar-type widget at the top of the search results showing you the weather for the next few days including some images and more details to create a more interactive experience.
Google Now Weather Widget
Search is also moving away from this task that you do on your desktop or even laptop computer. Search engine users are relying on mobile devices for text and voices searches, and we’re starting to see the interest in wearable computing technology come to life with Google Glass and the Pebble watch. It is becoming something more than users typing on keyboards and voice will likely become a much more important interface for search.
wearable tech
Brands and agencies seeking to get found or help clients be found online are suddenly dealing with many more variables than ever before. The challenge is to understand how to perform well in search and how to understand the different behaviors people are exhibiting in their search.
Creating content is going to be more challenging. For example, responsive websites are supposed to help content creators adapt to many different devices and provide high-quality experiences, but what happens when people are using voice search? What happens if people are only consuming the content surfaced by Google Now and don’t leave the search page?
If you look at the types of queries that Google Now and universal search are starting to dominate, you can get information based on a combination of smarter keyword parsing and semantic details than you could get a couple of years ago.
Service providers like GinzaMetrics are trying to help brands and agencies take all of the data that is arising from the dynamic changes and make it relevant.
“If you’re a brand or an agency trying to get found you’re creating content, and our goal is take all of the different data that’s out there and basically try to turn it into usable intelligence for you so that you understand what you should be creating, how you should be creating it and how that content should be distributed,” said Grieselhuber.
With paid search, you can get more data around targeting and see actual traction in traffic because now that’s one area that secure search is not really relevant to right now. Google will still be giving you traffic data for paid search ads.
Going forward instead of bidding on keywords, you’re going to bidding on things like topics and intent behind what people are actually looking for and none of us really understand exactly what that will look like right now, but it’s definitely something that is on the horizon.

Laying the groundwork for success

With more changes in search being inevitable, marketers can do a few things now to ensure success in the future.

  • Understand how much universal search and Google Now are going to impact your business from a search perspective. There will be certain queries that will not get traffic, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on search as a marketing channel. Topics that are more nuanced are going to provide more relevant queries; however, keep in mind that with Google Hummingbird, they will be trying to surface more nuanced content.
  • Really understand semantic search. Understand what Google is really trying to do with structured data and how it’s important on your website. Start structuring your data as much as you are able to in relation to both knowledge graph and universal search. Schema.org is a good place to get started and Google Webmaster Tools has a lot of information about structuring data.
  • Create content that is located offsite. Whether that is user-generated content or content hosted on channels like YouTube, it’s important to be more places. Branding and search marketing are merging very quickly, so being everywhere and being findable is really your No. 1 responsibility.

Grieselhuber says we are in a “transition period” right now, so many of the things that marketers have been doing now for the last year or two as long as they are focusing on creating high-quality, unique content will continue to work for the immediate future.
“It’s not like keywords are completely irrelevant right now,” said Grieselhuber. “Understanding the way to predict the demand in traffic based on those keywords is changing very quickly, but semantic search and the Hummingbird update are by no means perfect at all. There’s a long way to go.”
Even when semantic search is more engaged, it will still be a matter of creating good content based on understanding your audience and aligning your business to their needs. 

Responses from service providers

There are three high-level responses that service providers are having to these changes.

  1. Estimating keyword traffic based on projections.
  2. Use of content analytics.
  3. Estimating long-term campaign performance.

GinzaMetrics is taking a hybrid approach. Other service providers are using things like search volume data and applying it to average click-through-rates and estimating the traffic.
The other approach is to look at the content itself and looking at the number of visits, conversions, etc. and know that it’s targeting specific keywords. You can assume that those keywords are driving the traffic.

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Getting educated on becoming a findability expert

Self starters and self motivators will have the easiest time becoming experts in the search and content world. You need to be able to figure out the information yourself from a variety of sources.
“You have to build your own curriculum, and it has to be something you are doing on an ongoing basis,” suggested Grieselhuber. “Companies trying to hire people to fill these roles, the first thing they should look for is how motivated are the people that they’re hiring to try to learn things for themselves because you can’t really rely on anyone to teach it.”
With content marketing, you have to be good at being creative and analytical. You have to understand how data works, what statistical relevance means and how to make it relevant to your business, along with drawing creative insight to make more engaging content.
Grieselhuber referenced reading technology and big data, including Hacker News, Quora and books on the latest trends. He said that understanding the sorts of technologies that are enabling technology, you have a much greater understanding of where the industry is headed.

The future of search and content marketing

Grieselhuber anticipates that 2014 will be the start of full-scale adoption of content marketing initiatives. He also expects that more traditional marketers and SEO managers will start to work together on content marketing efforts and begin to speak the same language.
From an agency perspective, he feels that they will find themselves able to be increasingly well rounded to the benefit of their clients.
In-house marketers will have the luxury of choosing among a combination of tools that they build in-house, growing their own team, adopting different technology platforms and selecting the agencies that they work with. Because of cloud-based tools, in-house marketers also have full control over their data vs. it residing with agencies. This was not the case a couple of years ago.
SEO remains relevant, despite the fact that many have said it is dead repeatedly. What’s new in this discussion is that those responsible for SEO have started to say that they don’t want to call it SEO anymore. Their roles are so comprehensive, that it does not fit. At GinzaMetrics, it’s referred to as findability. You’re not just thinking about where you’re ranking on search engines but you’re trying to get your brand, product or service found by your target market in as many ways possible. That’s a significant part of content marketing.
Grieselhuber predicts that in three years the title SEO will not be used as much and those people will be working in inbound or content marketing roles.
“I think that search and content marketing will probably be…I’ll actually say they’ll unquestionably be the most valuable way to engage customers online,” said Grieselhuber. He said that they branding engagement and pure ROI are hard to match in any other channel.
He said that 5-8 years from now, wearable computing will be mainstream and search behaviors will be integrated into everything we do. We’ll grow less reliant on typing on a keyboard or keypad, which is where voice search will grow in popularity.
In the immediate future, marketing teams need to sit down and process what is going on in search and the impact that it will have on their company over the next 12 to 24 months.
The growth rate of investment in cloud-based technology and within online, search and content marketing is double the investment that will be happing in new agency spend over the next couple of years.
“People are clearly getting the message that in order to make the right decisions you need to be investing in intelligence to make those decisions,” said Grieselhuber.

Watch FOUND Friday: The State of Search & Content