Hummingbird Update—Google Hums A New Tune

Google is 15 years old. But instead of embarking on the typical teenage rebellion, they are on a mission of self-improvement. Here we upwrap a large algorithm-shaped gift, affectionately named ‘Hummingbird’.
  • Hummingbird is a gigantic change to the core mechanics of the search algorithm Google uses.
  • A shift towards more semantic search queries can help drive SEO in the right direction and avoid the shortcuts which Google have previously attempted to cut down with past updates.
  • ... the worries that this new update would be the death of SEO has been greatly exaggerated.
  • The change is obviously geared toward the rise of mobile and voice searches.

Unlike the previous refinements and tweaks Google have made to their algorithm – such as our much-loved spam-busting Panda n’ Penguin friends – the Hummingbird change is on a much larger scale. Or so Google say. This change is perhaps one of the largest to grace Google’s search algorithms in over a decade. The only possibly comparable change occurred in 2010 with the Caffeine update, but Caffeine was primarily a revamp of the indexing system, while Hummingbird is a complete overhaul of how Google sorts through information.

What is Hummingbird?

Hummingbird is an attempt by Google to keep pace with the changing world. The previous algorithm was failing to meet the needs of an ever-accelerating technological world, and full respect to Google for recognising it. As a company with such dominance in their industry it is a wonder—and indeed quite frightening—that they are so prepared to further turn the screw on their fledgling competition. How people are using search engines is changing and Hummingbird is a response to these changes. Although it is a complete overhaul, it has been built on old and new elements. The parts which worked well in the previous algorithm have been kept, so the recent Penguin and Panda updates still exist but have been installed into Hummingbird. So, crucially, as an SEO practitioner or indeed someone just taking care of your own website’s ranking, there is not much for you to worry about.

Make no mistake; Hummingbird is a gigantic change to the core mechanics of the search algorithm Google uses. The ultimate goal of this change is to provide relevant query results in a considerably faster and more precise way. This is done by a new semantic search system, which means that Google is now better at understanding complex queries, concepts, and the relationships between different concepts. The word that they have been throwing around is ‘conversational’. That’s right – Google wants you to ‘talk’ to it now. ‘Google, how long will it take me to drive to my nearest gym?’ That kind of thing. Some of you savvy folk might already recognise this technology from Google Now and Knowledge Graph – but the significance of Hummingbird is Google’s commitment to it on a ‘mass’ scale. This mass scale reportedly represents 90% of all searches now. Boom-time.

Why was this change necessary though? At the announcement of Hummingbird, Google’s Senior Vice President Amit Singhal, said “Our algorithm had to go through some fundamental rethinking of how we are going to keep our results relevant”. As previously mentioned, the advancements in technology over the last decade – I’m talking mobile and voice search by the way – have changed the way people use search engines.

So, back to the conversation and talking to computers thing. Hummingbird will look at the words in a query and attempt to understand the context behind terms used. Google provided a few examples of how Hummingbird will make a difference, for instance, a search for ‘pizza hut calories per slice’ will link directly to nutritional information from Pizza Hut’s website while before it would link to a page like this. Mmmm 1,000 calorie pizza slice…

This is done by understanding the context of the question and displaying more relevant results. Just don’t me how. Google claims that Hummingbird attempts to understand each word in a search query rather than matching particular key words, with the overall goal being that pages matching the meaning of a query rank higher than pages which match key words but bear little relevance.

So what does this mean for SEO?

Just like in 2010 when the Caffeine Update occurred, the worries that this new update would be the death of SEO has been greatly exaggerated. The principles of providing high quality, original content remain exactly the same – all Hummingbird does is create a new way for Google process this information.

In fact, leading SEO analysts predict that only good things can come from this change. A shift towards more semantic search queries can help drive SEO in the right direction and avoid the shortcuts which Google have previously attempted to cut down with past updates.

Sneaky old Google have actually been trialling Hummingbird for a month so as to help ease fears that the change could have a negative effect on their precious reputation. You may have noticed in some queries that Google gives you simple answers to your questions without even having to click on a page to see the result. That’s Hummingbird winging its way into your life. However, the question of whether it makes Google better will not be known until the coming months. The Hummingbird update does not affect rankings on Google in any drastic way. If you haven’t noticed a significant drop-off in rankings since the start of September then you are fine. Chillax. You’re going to have to try harder than that Uncle Google!

In terms of how an agency would handle an SEO campaign, there are a few minor tweaks. We are currently designing a website for a small (but awesome!) glass company in London called G.H Glass. Our actual build will change almost unnoticeably. However, if you go to their blog (and if they keep up their blogging!) you should notice that the titles of a lot of blog posts are written as questions as opposed to statements. So, instead of a blog post being called “A beautiful example of kitchen glass cladding”, the article might be called “How can I do kitchen glass cladding?” Does that make sense? Basically, just ask questions in your titles. Not all the time mind, but sometimes.

The change is obviously geared toward the rise of mobile and voice searches, but Google are always looking for new ways to improve the effectiveness of its search engine. While Hummingbird is one of the biggest changes we have seen in recent memory, it also provides an exciting opportunity for SEO and offers new avenues to pursue and think about in the future. As if we didn’t have enough of those already…

Thanks Google.