Google’s Hummingbird Update, which was announced on September 2013, was said to have affected 90% of all search queries. Unlike the Penguin and Panda updates, however, Hummingbird was not a penalty-based update, but a change in the way Google treated different types of search queries.

Hummingbird placed greater emphasis on natural language queries, considering context and meaning over individual keywords. The update used semantic search by adapting Google’s algorithm to include conversational queries. Semantic search is the concept of improving search results by focusing on user intent and how the subject of a search relates to other information in a wider sense, or its contextual relevance.

Semantic search focuses on determining what a user really means when they use conversational phrases in their search queries rather than solely depending on a string of keywords the user typed in. These conversational queries can include longer, question-like type queries like – “how to…?“, “where is the nearest…?“, “where can I get…?“, etc. Since a growing number of people started using these conversational queries when searching the web, Google could no longer rely on keywords only to provide the best search results.


Understanding the Hummingbird Update and Semantic Search

One of the reasons why the Hummingbird Update was created was in response to how people actually search for things online. This has also introduced semantic search, which focuses on conversational and natural language usage. Instead of focusing on the keywords people use when searching online the Hummingbird Update aimed to allow search engines to ‘understand’ the actual meaning behind the queries.

For instance a typical user will put in a query like ‘Where can I find the cheapest web design in Cape Town?’. Whereas prior search algorithms would focus on the keywords within that query, Hummingbird focuses on the meaning and intent behind the query as an attempt to ‘answer’ the user’s question. This type of semantic search allows for service providers that focus on providing localized services, for instance ‘Digital Marketing Services in Cape Town’ , to be pushed up more in the SERPs. This is also how targeting for local SEO works.

Hummingbird’s emphasis on conversational search queries and natural language can be seen as the result of the growth of voice powered search via mobile phones in recent years. The update also meant that businesses would have to re-evaluate how they thought customers were using the Internet to find their products and services.

Ultimately when planning their SEO strategies business owners need to consider as many queries as possible, and what the customer could really be searching for. Hummingbird also opened up Google’s long standing support for long-tail queries, taking it a step further by concentrating on answers instead of just data. Hummingbird aimed to help Google understand the meaning of the words in queries in order to deliver better search results.

Semantic search focuses on dealing better with conversational queries by understanding the user’s actual search intent and finding the content that best matches that intent. For the small business owner this means that your site content needs to expand to cover as many meanings as possible.


So how should small business owners and digital marketers strategize for semantic search in 2020?


1. Adapt your keyword strategies for conversational queries


  •         Target conversational phrases just as they are, or use slight variations e.g. ‘We offer the cheapest web design in Cape Town.’
  •         Try determining the different conversational phrases people are likely to use when searching for your services. For example ‘The most cost-effective web services in Cape Town’, etc.
  •         Don’t forget to cover shorter equivalents and synonymous of the conversational phrases you are targeting e.g. ‘The most affordable web design in Cape Town’.

2. Expand your keyword research and diversify your content


  •         Pay attention to synonymous, related keywords, co-occurring terms and spelling variants
  •         Try using Google Suggest for relevant keywords ideas


3. Aim for co-citations, since this is another method that Google uses to identify what your website or business is about.

  •         Co-citation is when your brand is mentioned alongside with your competitors, this serves as a hint to Google that your firm and those other companies are related.
  •         Analyse your top competitors backlink profiles to see which niche resources they have links from then reach out to those resources.


4. Don’t forget to optimize the anchor texts on your site for semantically relevant keywords.

  •         Use the relevant keywords in your anchor texts and also surround those links with related terms and their synonyms.
  •         Remember that Google still relies on backlink anchor texts to better understand a site, but try not to overdo the process.


5. Pay more attention to your structured data markup

  •         Use structured data properties like to let Google know more about your site
  •         You can also use Structured Data Testing Tool on Google Webmaster Tools to make sure that search engines are interpreting your structured data correctly.


Overall the crucial part of having a solid content strategy plan for your website will have to include catering for semantic search and local SEO by adapting your keyword strategy for conversational queries.

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