Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and… Jessica Rabbit

I don’t know how much you remember about the the 1988 live action and animation blockbuster, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? One of the lead characters was a sultry cartoon femme fatale, Jessica Rabbit, voiced by actress Kathleen Turner. Curves in all the right places, as the used to say in cheap detective novels.

Jessica, on the other hand, resented the way people made assumptions based on her contours. “I’m not bad,” she breathes… “I’m just drawn this way.” Which brings me on to my first metaphor (well, you must have known there was one coming).

It’s the same with attractive content. In digital terms content can only be truly attractive if it draws both people and machines but until relatively recently content has been drawn to be more appealing to machines. This was hugely important. In digital terms Google’s views were to search what Mr.Disney’s were to animated cartoons. We tended to accentuate our content contours to make it more appealing that way.

“I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known.” Walt Disney

Google grows up

But things have changed… are changing. And that’s because the Google algorithm is growing up. Stand by for metaphor number two.

You can get terribly bogged down in how the Google algorithm has changed over the years. But what it boils down to is something that is becoming infinitely more human and nuanced.

Imagine building a robot that was extremely intelligent but socially naive. Now imagine teaching that robot how to become more and more human.

That’s what I think is happening to the Google algorithm. We’re currently somewhere between spotty teenager and young adult – a rough grasp of the principles but still a little awkward in certain situations. But give it time.

So… what does it mean for content?

When you’re talking to a robot or even  a very young child, you keep things simple. If you wanted early Google to pay attention you spoke in in simple terms. Early search optimisation was employed simple formulas. Multiples and key words and phrases in given densities etc.

But, slowly, the quality of content, its usefulness and its freshness began to take the high ground. The algorithm and its iterations started to grapple with this.

Just as growing up is not a simple process so the algorithm caused havoc along the way and people lost as much sleep over trying to understand what it was up to as the average parent does trying to understand the chaotic mumbling and random actions of their offspring’s puberty.

Hummingbird, the latest algorithmic interation may seem to be all about speed but to me and my metaphors it seems to be as much about a young adult paying more attention to the other people in the room and their needs (context and consequence). It’s more… outward facing and helpful. It listens to and can understand more complex (more human) questions.

I know all the search specialists are currently rolling their eyes and sticking pins into wax effigies of Jessica Rabbit as they read this but stick with me. I’m certainly not attempting to undermine the role that SEO plays but I think that we all have to brush up some of our more intuitive skills when it comes to content creation.

In essence, what does this involve?

Intuitive and attractive content

Well, I think the emphasis is on answering questions, showing people ‘how to’ and using marketing research, not just keyword research, to create information-rich content. It’s about keeping it relevant and keeping it conversational.

The good news is that what’s good for people is increasingly good for machines. Just in the same way that teenagers don’t respond if your patronise them so the Google algorithm is getting better at spotting whether the tone of your content is genuine or not.

The other great advantage with all this is that individual skill sets – search, content creation, strategy, technical communication and expertise… can work synergistically and in better balance.

In my head, this is how it all looks…

There have been three major phases to the Google algorithm since about 2011 and they were called Panda, Penguin and most recently Hummingbird.

Just like child development, each one of these contained a host of changes but broadly speaking, Panda was what I now describe as the initial growth spurt out of late childhood and covered the obvious stuff such as sites with really weak, cynical content. Good bloggers who updated regularly suddenly found Google was paying more attention.

Over the various iterations of this algorithm the major thing for me was the increasing emphasis on quality over quantity. It’s a bit like pre-teens discovering and enjoying food experiences outside of a box of Pringles.

Which brings me to the later iterations of Panda and Google’s pre-teens proper. Just like a pre-teen gets better at reading people ( tone of voice, attitude etc) so the algorithm just became better at reading websites and capable of simple value judgments such as detecting trustworthiness and absence of bias. It started to set more store by what other people thought (user feedback). The updates themselves seem to become more thoughtful and phased.

The algorithm’s teens take us to Penguin. This was a huge period of change. Not always very attractive (remember teen spots and smelly feet), but it took Google a long way.

The algorithm started to look up to certain types of website (beyond peer reinforcement) and recognised the authority good website content could command.

Google also learned that different communities had different voices and being helpful was a good thing and didn’t mean you were a dweeb. Link quality became ever more important.


Finally we come to Hummingbird, which I’m still getting my head around. The obvious change here is, in theory, how it allows people to search in a more human way eg “What would you like for supper?” as opposed to “Eats chips for tea, yes?”

It also gave some helpful advice to content owners about how to refresh older but nonetheless valuable content (not only what is being said but the authority of the person saying it) and the deeper reading users are willing to embrace as part of deeper engagement. This is being referred to as content greening.

Of course the algorithm’s journey into adulthood is not without it’s backward steps. The news that Google is encrypting searches in such a way that sites will not be able to use key word data to track visitors, is an example of this.

To me that’s a bit like a young adult putting Do Not Enter sign on their bedroom door. The evolving Google wants a bit more privacy. Where it goes next… you tell me?

In terms of what we do with all this, I’m placing increasing emphasis on content confidence and building training and workshops around allowing people to create content more intuitively and only then check it against things like analytics.

So with clients I’m talking in terms of cross-organisation content engagement workshops, language exchange workshops, content confidence builders, virtual water cooler opportunities (where people can easily trade insights across demarcations) and talent scouting for content champions and new voices outside of the traditional marketing, content strategy and search skill sets.

Attractive content, for me, is all about answering questions, showing people ‘how to’, market research (not just keyword research). It’s all about information-rich, evergreen content, as well as good descriptions and titles. The tone is of the real world and very conversational.

But, unlike Jessica Rabbit, you can draw your own conclusions.

congility-logo-147x50This post is based on a webinar which took place on March 12 in advance of Congility 2014.

Congility 2014, 18 June Workshops, 19-20 June Conference, Gatwick, UK