GoogleHumm_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

Hold on to your hats, small business owners. Everything you thought you knew about SEO and making sure your customers could find your business online may not be true anymore. That’s thanks to Google’s recent adoption of Hummingbird, its new, more dynamic method for improving search results.

“The Hummingbird algorithm is significant as it changes Google from being a search engine to an information engine,” says Mert Sahinoglu, a partner in Chicago’s Falcon Living Real Estate. He has been a digital marketing consultant for over a decade and says that for the small business owner, “This means that they will have to provide more information and multimedia content to their Google+ profile.”

“It’s important to state that Hummingbird is not just an algorithm update,” adds George Zlatin, director of operations at Digital Third Coast Internet Marketing, a Chicago-based SEO consulting and marketing firm. “It is a structural update to the algorithm that affects 90 percent of search queries. To put that in perspective, when Google releases a normal algorithm update, that usually affects anywhere from one to three percent of queries. So this is much, much larger.”

Widespread smartphone and tablet use led to Hummingbird

“In mobile search, thanks to technologies such as the iPhone’s Siri, customers are asking more questions rather than typing keywords,” Sahinoglu explains. Keyword-based searching is still practiced by the majority of desktop users, but Sahinoglu expects this to change. “As Google improves Hummingbird, questions will replace keywords as customer confidence in getting the right answer for the question increases.”

GoogleHumm_PQ.jpgHummingbird may already be helping your small business

“If you create a lot of good content on your website that is relevant to your business you are more likely to get more traffic from that than pre-Hummingbird,” says Zlatin. “Hummingbird does not mean that Google doesn’t use traditional ranking factors anymore, such as keywords, backlinks to your site, or content. It is just a new framework put on top of it.”

Best practices for small businesses

It’s very important to understand that Hummingbird places a high value on information from Google+ profiles and social media platforms. This means your business may have some more work to do besides the creation and sharing of keyword-rich, unique content on your website and social media platforms.

“You should provide as much detail as possible in your Google+ Local profile, including opening/closing hours,” Sahinoglu says. Images are also becoming increasingly important. Sahinoglu recommends that profile photos should always be selected with marketing in mind. “Photos are definitely becoming the first impression a new customer sees about a business in the new Google.”

Hummingbird will also push small businesses to network with their geographic area customers or with their niche group of customers more on Google+, according to Sahinoglu. Another key factor to consider is your Google + Authorship authority. Google + Authorship is a verification that links online content to the person who wrote it. The more published content you have out there, the more important you become in Hummingbird’s eyes. You will get a bigger boost from content that appears on sites you don’t actually control.

SBC newsletter logo.gifContent is still king

“The best advice I can give small business owners is to really focus on adding unique content to their websites.” Zlantin says. “Talk about what you know. Talk about what customers are asking you. This type of content is going to bring more traffic from Hummingbird.” He adds, “There is no way you can predict all of the search terms people will write, so it’s better to just focus on writing content that is important to them.”

“Start building an extensive Q&A library about your products or services,” Sahinoglu recommends. “This could be a brand-related Q&A or a non-brand product/service Q&A. Optimize a unique page for each Q&A.”

Going forward: Be prepared for change

Google is continually refining and adjusting all of the algorithms they use to determine search results. This upgrade to Hummingbird is sure to be followed by others in the future. As a small business owner, maintaining awareness of these changes and implementing recommended best practices is the best way to ensure favorable search engine rankings.