The Google Hummingbird launch is being greeted as a game-changer for SEO. It aims to deepen Google’s focus on ‘strings versus things’  – improving the way Google understands a user’s search queries to deliver more relevant results and handle changes in the way users search, for example Google’s conversational search.

Some SEO’s are concerned that this will push out small sites who rely on ‘niche’ long tail variations, resulting in less visibility for all but the biggest brands and Google’s own web properties. However, that’s not necessarily the case.

What’s the problem?

The reasoning goes that Hummingbird reduces long, complex search queries into shorter ones – a user who enters a voice search for ‘where’s the best place to buy sushi near here?’ will be shown the results page for ‘sushi restaurants {detected location}’.

If this is the case, it could mean huge numbers of smaller sites being pushed out of the SERPs – those who are unable to rank for top-level search terms would be invisible, since Hummingbird would simplify the long tail search results they used to appear for. They’d be forced to pay for Adwords to get any visibility at all, boosting Google’s revenues.

Less keywords = less variety?

I’m not convinced this is the direction Hummingbird is taking search. Yes, technically it will mean ‘less’ search queries, in the sense that minor syntax variations will no longer be treated as an entirely different search. However, while variation of results based on word order will be a thing of the past, the actual variety of search results is more likely to increase than decrease.

We’ve already seen increasing personalisation of the SERPs through Universal Search, so it’s just not logical to expect Google to introduce a change that will result in less variation. Google has been taking more cues from the user for some time – their location, demographics, previous searches and so on.

It makes sense that Hummingbird will follow the personalised search trends we’ve already seen – users will be shown a highly customised search result page, even if their search query is being simplified. More variables mean more potential combinations, and a lot more individual SERPs, not less.

Less keywords = more relevance

This is not the death of niche markets. If anything, it’ll help a wider range of sites appear for search terms that previously they’d never be capable of ranking for, as long as they’re the most relevant choice for that user at that specific time.

The most obvious example of this is at a local level for mobile searches, but with the vast amount of information Google stores on its users, there are countless other ways to refine searches.

For sites ranking for very high level, generic terms, this might mean less traffic, but if Hummingbird really does serve more relevant results to the user, the traffic they do receive will be much more targeted and valuable.

How to make the most of it?

Like most recent Google updates, Hummingbird is best approached by moving away from obscure technical pursuits and towards wider-ranging general marketing concepts.

1.       Target niche markets, not niche keywords

Instead of finding niche keyword variations, sites need to think bigger – who are the people who would be typing these niche keywords? Why do your customers come to you instead of your competition?

Building a niche isn’t an overnight task – branding plays a big part here. Your content strategy will play a key part in convincing Google that you’re highly relevant to your chosen niche, and social signals and reviews are also likely to be key indicators.

2.       Widen your keyword targets

Targeting a handful of highly specific keyword variations is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and Hummingbird only accelerates this process. Instead, focus on overall topic relevance with the aim of being relevant for a wide range of relevant terms.

Save your keyword landing pages for your PPC campaign and aim to build a strong base of relevant content and information for your target area. Make sure it’s well organised, high quality and valuable to your users, and don’t obsess about exactly what keyword variations you’re targeting.

3.       Improve your UX

Finally, if serving highly relevant, useful results is the aim for Hummingbird, it makes sense that engagement metrics will start to increase in importance.

UX, site speed and conversion rate will all be vital tools to make sure that you’re getting the most out of the search traffic you attract, especially if you’ve got less influence over which key phrases you appear for.

Summing up

It’s extremely unlikely that Hummingbird will decrease variation in the search results – that just doesn’t tally with Google’s previous updates, like Universal Search, which have done the exact opposite. Instead, Hummingbird is likely to start varying search results based on a much wider range of factors, taking more cues from the user to deliver relevant results instead of requiring them to be specific in typing their search term.

Ultimately, this means more focus on topic relevance and less on specific keyword variations, but it doesn’t mean smaller sites will be pushed out as Hummingbird simplifies complex search queries. Instead, smaller brands have the opportunity to appear for terms they’d previously had no chance of competing for – as long as they can prove that they’re the most relevant to a particular searcher in a particular situation.

(image http://farm1.staticflickr.com/8/9972878_16a21e6983.jpg credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/toofarnorth/)