Hummingbird, Markup Language and Links – SMX London 2014 Uncovered

There is not one single “truth” in SEO. Day in day out, we are making assumptions, testing hypotheses and are trying new ways to do quality work for the websites we manage. 

Hummingbird, Markup Language and Links – SMX London 2014 Uncovered

However, there are undeniable trends – Two of the main topics that were addressed at the SMX London were the Hummingbird Update and the value of links today. Here's my take on important discussion points, and presentation slides from the SMX talks.

More Data

While it is Googles objective to gain a better understanding of websites, SEOs' aim to rank high in the search results in order to drive qualitative traffic and ultimately create conversions. And right here is where the conflict happens: Google wants to provide an advanced search experience but is technically not able to do so at the moment, as HTML tags only provide limited information about the content found on a specific page. Markup languages such as schema.org on the other side can help search engines attain a better understanding of a site, its content and how it is connected to its surroundings. Therefore, Google relies on webmasters to mark up their websites and incentivizes them to do so by introducing rich snippets and enabling optimized pages to appear within vertical search (see screenshot).

Rich Snippets

One major benefit of using markup language is the possibility to show up in the SERPs with rich snippets. However, while everyone has the possibility to mark their website up, there is no guarantee that rich snippets will be displayed when the specific page shows up in the search results. According to Google, the trust a website receives largely determines if rich snippets are displayed. Barry Adams, spoke about this at the SMX London and identified links as a major factor of trust even though as he says “no one wants to admit it.”

Generally, we can say that if rich snippets show up correctly, they increase traffic and can even affect rankings in positive ways. Sam Edwards who spoke at SMX, was able to report ranking increases for 75% of all tracked keywords after implementing schema markup for a recipe page. Overall, it added up to an average improvement of 2.42 positions per listing. While Google denies a direct causality between the implementation of markup language and improved rankings, rich snippets definitely boost the visibility of pages in the search results.

Even though the benefits seem obvious, very few websites are making use of markup language. Bastian Grimm states that in the USA, only 0.3% of all websites have implemented schema.org. However 65% of SERPS include at least one rich snippet, which presents itself as a tremendous opportunity to SEOs. Utilizing rich snippets is not too hard either, simply use the options provided in Google Webmaster Tools to validate, fetch and monitor your marked up pages.

Semantic Search

The Hummingbird Update heavily relies on structured data and utilizes it to supply users with more accurate search results by understanding the implicit nature of a lot of queries. An implication of this update is, that pages which were simply targeting long-tail keyword strings will lose visibility as exact match title tags and URLs will lose importance. On the other side, the use of structured data allows SEOs to target user queries in completely new ways as the example below illustrates.

Google is looking for unique content that can be parsed by its engine and establishes a context between different entities and attributes. In this case that Justin Briggs presented at SMX, it’s a search query looking for the movie Donnie Darko.

Even though the title tag nor the written content on the page exactly matches the search query, Google understands the intention behind the search query and shows the user the most appropriate result by accessing structured language, in this case schema.org. Taking it to the next level, AJ Kohn states in his blogpost about Knowledge Graph Optimization that once you make connections between different entities and attributes using structured data “there seems to be an increased ability to rank for relevant terms.“

Value of Links

Structured data is gaining more and more importance, however links are still an important indicator of trust. Linkbuilding is far from dead but it’s seems that the rules have changed. A lot of SEOs currently focus on earning quality links through natural ways such as content marketing, as there is always the risk of getting penalized by Google when building links just for the sake of it. However, Leonard Henning reported that the number of links to a website is still the highest correlating factor when looking at the correlation between links and top rankings.

Therefore, I wasn’t too surprised that a lot of SEOs are still trying to reengineer the link profile of established websites in order to rank for competitive terms. The goal here is to make one’s own link profile look natural while building links on a large scale. Of course it can never harm to have a look at what the competition is doing to rank, I personally wouldn’t base my whole strategy on it though. Rather gather the insights from a competitive analysis to find new ideas or inspiration and leverage it to be a step ahead of your competition, not one behind.