The latest update to Google's ranking algorithm - codenamed hummingbird - is upon us. Webmasters who still have nightmares about the infamous Panda update, and later the Penguin update will no doubt hear the news of a new update with more than a little concern.
Unlike Panda and Penguin, this update is claimed to be a major change in the way sites are ranked (think back to the caffeine update of 2010 for the last major update). The name 'hummingbird' was chosen to mean 'precise and fast'. The update is supposed to greatly increase the speed of searching for mobile devices which are increasingly being used to query Google's database.
The new update no longer looks at keywords in isolation, but includes a 'knowledge graph' to decipher the meaning of words. This means that similar phrases can more readily be disambiguated. For example, a site selling furniture polish will no longer be linked with sites related to the Polish language.
What the update means for SEO is that its going to make it much harder to rank higher just by adding keywords into your website pages and metatags. Now you are going to need to tailor your content if you want to appear highly for specific phrases. You will also have to make sure that your site is constantly being updated with fresh, relevant and unique content. One way of doing this is by adding a blog or news section to your site that answers specific questions that people are likely to ask in Google.
As with any algorithm update, there are always people who say their sites have suffered. Unfortunately, since Google released the update over a month before they officially announced it, it is not possible to retrospectively compare ranking figures for these sites. However some reports say that they have noticed a decline over the past month. Whether this was due to hummingbird, or from other tweaks in the algorithm is impossible to say. What I can see is that Wikipedia now ranks at the top of many searches that I do when it used to occupy far fewer top spots.