SMX West Q&A with Google’s Amit Singhal: Hummingbird is the future

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by Brafton Editorial
At SMX West, keynote speaker Amit Singhal shares insights about where Google plans to take the future of search and what it means for publishers.

In the next few years, devices will be able to organize our lives. They will be working “in the background, so you don’t have to…,” automatically organizing information into “simple cards that appear just when they’re needed.” So says the Google landing page for Google Now, touting the predictive technology that provides each user with customized and relevant information. It’s a feature that Google Senior Vice President and Software Engineer Amit Singhal is extremely proud of. But how is it possible, and what does it mean for Google search? For search marketing, and marketing in general?

Singhal opened his SMX West keynote Q&A with a video about Google now, and explained it’s built for mobile devices because that is the future of search (and internet access). Hummingbird was also built with a mobile user in mind. The semantic algorithm that draws from Google’s Knowledge Graph to understand “things, not strings,” has been giving some SEOs a run for their money, though genuine content marketing efforts seem to remain largely unimpacted.

Any brand that wants a place in search has to be prepared to create marketing that can withstand Hummingbird – because, although it won’t completely replace previous algorithms, or obliterate rankings signals like links, Singhal calls it the future. “Hummingbird is not only a complete search system on its own, it’s the foundation for what we’ll build in the future. Your previous foundation may allow you to build one story on top, but you’ll need to create things,” he said.

Read on for his full Q&A with Search Engine Land’s Founding Editor Danny Sullivan.

Danny Sullivan: Does Google understand each word out there? If I search Obama, or it’s seen on a page, does Google know Obama MEANS a person (and who)?

Amit: With our Knowledge Graph, we started understanding things and not just strings. There are entities out there – Obama is one. And when we built the Knowledge Graph we wanted to understand documents better. Google uses over 200 signals to parse results, Knowledge Graph is another addition.

“I define [quality information] as, “Would I send my child to this site to learn?” The answers you’d come up with aren’t that different from what our engineers say.” – Amit

Q: What about links?

Amit: Links are clearly an important signal about the value of your content.

Q: The use of social signals is always coming up. To be clear, you’re not using social signals from Twitter or Facebook?

Amit: You’re right – we’re not using that now, though we’re open to adding. It’s hard for us to use signals when we don’t have access to the data.

Q: But you do have access to Google+ data. And when you’re not logged in, +1’s, Circles, etc. shouldn’t influence – but if logged in, those signals will have a big impact on how things rank?

Amit: Yes. And we’re looking from the user’s perspective. If you analyze user psychology for relevance, there are two key factors. The authority of those affiliated with content is a factor (like Authorship) is one. Trust in something shared by a friend or contact is another. I take pride in what we’ve built here, and we would use all the relevant signals we could. We find social signals are relevant.

Q: Beyond social and links, how might you determine if a page is relevant? Syntactic connections? What’s promising?

Amit: What will you, as a user, define as quality content? I define it as, “Would I send my child to this site to learn?” The answers you’d come up with aren’t that different from what our engineers say. Then we ask, what are relevant indicators? Links are one of them, there are 200+ more.

Q: We can see that Authorship could possibly come into play.

“If answers in SERPs are the Swiss Army Knife, it doesn’t mean a user won’t need a screwdriver for other searches.” – Amit

Amit: Possibly it could. Are we done with link and signal questions now? (Laughter.)

Q: Will more answers appear in Google results?

Amit: Knowledge graph has been an awesome addition to the technology we use. It’s not that you don’t need to do deep research, but we want to make Google your Swiss Army Knife and it just got a little more useful. The world has gone mobile and there are times when you really can’t read a lot of pages, but you need something.
When we’re having product conversations, if we don’t build a product that users want and we get stuck in a debate on what’s healthy, what’s not, people would stop trusting search.

Q: But what about the publishers? Users probably wouldn’t want to click at all.

Amit: That’s not always true – if answers in SERPs are the Swiss Army Knife, it doesn’t mean a user won’t need a screwdriver for other searches.

Q: But even the answers take clicks from publishers where Google gets the answers.

Amit: It’s the right product choice (for Google) to provide the answer when you want it, and to direct users to other in-depth answers on trusted sites in other cases.

Q: What about secure searches, and why do advertisers get more data than is in Analytics?

Amit: Imagine an advertiser or travel agent who bought a keyword on a Malaysian flight keyword? With the recent tragedy, they might have lost a lot of money because of real-time happenings. With Webmaster Tools, you can still see a lot of information about clicks to your site from keywords. But we are hearing more from users that they would like to keep their searches secure. We really like the way things have gone on the organic side of search. We are committed to finding the right solution for secure-hungry users, and remaining fair to paid advertisers. In the months to come, expect an announcement about this solution about maintaining secure searches.

Q: What should marketers think about in terms of surviving the coming shifts and changes?

“It’s the right product choice (for Google) to provide the answer when you want it, and to direct users to other in-depth answers on trusted sites in other cases.” – Amit

Amit: The world is changing, and we are upon a mobile revolution. Users have devices on them at all times: This is awesome because technology and information are equalizers. Truly, a farmer in Africa can have as much information available to him as the king of Spain did 50 years back. The devices will get smaller, and be owned by billions more people. As a marketer, ask how you would serve those next 5 billion people with limited devices that still have tremendous power? Be part of the web world we would want to live in.

One thing I am really proud of is natural language understanding. When I was in grad school, I tried to build a model so search could answer, “Why is the sky blue?” and today it can.

(For more on the mobile revolution and what it means for marketers, check out this Brafton article.)

Q: What about Google Now and some products that don’t have a place yet?

Amit: You have to cross product lines to make the best solution. Beautiful products are built when separate areas collide. Google’s really no different. Like search (with Knowledge Graph), Android and speech recognition. I don’t see a need for one person or one “place” because as soon as you build it, you’d find another divergent area. We like to bring together experts in their own Google areas.

Q: I think Google’s been great at church and state of “Buying ads won’t give you better rankings.” But the entire Google Shopping engine was turned into an ad product… Is there a search team that would say, “No, it’s not going to go that way.”

Amit: Let me start with a simple truth: There IS a separation of church and state with ads and search. You cannot change your organic ranking through buying ads, and we feel proud of that. You have one canvas, and you need to paint on it, organic search, ads, answers, Knowledge Graph. We get together as experts in these teams with designers to ensure different principles are maintained so you can’t buy placement.

Q: Is the new look of ad banners a thing?

Amit: We are always experimenting. The banners were an experiment. When you work at an innovative company, you have to let people try things and then let the data show its worth. If there is no user benefit in it, it won’t last. But we need to experiment to improve the product, and not everyone would agree with all of our experiments – but rest assured, a team of PhDs is determining whether the experiments add user value.

(Check out this video about how Google’s paid ad banners have recently changed.)

Q: Speaking of experiments, I saw you tweet about American Idol voting through the Google search. Who did you vote for?

Amit: Well clearly, voting (on search) was loved by our users. “Lots and lots” of people used it. It was a huge success.

(To learn how Google helped American Idol viewers vote, check out this Brafton article.) 

“If you’re using Gmail and search signed in [to your Google account], you should get all the goodness of Google Now if in the United States.” – Amit

Q: Did they go on to search more? Did the voting option change their behavior?

Amit: Well, people had their use for voting and I can just tell you it was a very successful experiment.

Q: Is there a real competitor to Google, and if so – how does that influence you?

Amit: All companies have to ask this question. And the way I have seen the world of technology, the timelines are so compressed you may see competition as one thing today, but it can completely change tomorrow. From my perspective, we must keep our eye on the ball. We must keep building projects our users love. Competition can come where you don’t see it, so focusing on the user is essential.

Q: Google Now is both scary and give me more. It can literally predict the searches I need. What’s next – and what happens after the Gmail field trial?

Amit: If you’re using Gmail and search signed in [to your Google account], you should get all the goodness of Google Now if in the United States. One of the joys of being me, is I’ve been doing search for more than 20 years and I can always see there’s SO MUCH more to do. We’re just getting started.

Q: What will search look like in five years?

Amit: The scientist in me is cautious of predictions, but I would claim that the texture of search will change with the limitations and powers of mobile. You should interface with Google as best possible from a phone.

Q: Why doesn’t Google come up first for “search engine” – are you trying to come up for “user experience?”

Amit: I think people searching for search engines on Google are looking for something different – not Google. So that might be a sign of good user experience…

Q: Do you have to do what Larry and Sergey say?

Amit: The great thing about running Google search is that everyone is a user, and the user is always right (including Larry).

More SMX West updates to come – and check out what Matt Cutts said in last year’s SES Q&A keynote on the future of search.

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