Hummingbird is a search algorithm used by Google. It was first introduced in August 2013, to replace the previous Caffeine algorithm, and affects about 90% of Google searches.
Hummingbird is a brand new engine, but one that continues to use some of the same parts of the old, like Panda and Penguin. In terms of what Google is trying to do with this new engine, very little has changed—the focus is still on quality.
How does Hummingbird work?
Unlike Penguin and Panda, Hummingbird is not a penalty-based update (aimed at ridding search engine results pages from low-quality content), but a change in the way Google reacts to different types of queries. It’s a new way of understanding the actual meaning behind a search query, rather than the separate terms within it. The use of keyword synonyms has been optimised with Hummingbird; instead of listing results with exact phrases or keywords, Google now shows more theme-related results.
It’s all about context. Google has always used synonyms, but with Hummingbird it is able to judge context, thereby understanding the intent of a search to determine exactly what the user is trying to find out. It’s what we refer to as semantic search.
It’s been dubbed a ‘meaning’ technology, or a means of making interactions more human. Hummingbird is designed to apply this ‘meaning’ technology to augment Google’s Knowledge Graph, intended to return results for users to explore a whole network of connections related to their query. Hummingbird is therefore well placed to determine the most relevant and highest quality pages that meet the needs of the searcher.
It’s also better at inferring what it is you’re talking about, even if you’re not quite sure of that yourself. For example, if we enter the search query “what is that film about the three guys in vegas?”, Google manages to infer and interpret context to return a meaningful result. Despite the vagueness of our keywords and colloquial tone, it knows we mean ‘The Hangover’.
To highlight just how advanced a system this is evolving into, the Hummingbird algorithm hasn’t returned an exact text match, but has instead taken the relevant entities from the query in order to deliver an accurate response.
Mobile search and voice search
It should be no secret by now that Google intends to become more mobile friendly. This has included working to make the user experience for mobile better, introducing Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs), making site speed a ranking factor and introducing a mobile-only ‘primary’ index.
With mobile search comes voice search. Voice search naturally tends to mean rather than searching for a one or two word phrase, people are using whole sentences, questions, and more complex queries when they speak. In fact, Google stressed that the Hummingbird algorithm is important precisely because users expect more natural and conversational interactions with a search engine—for example, using their voice to speak requests into mobile phones, smart watches and other wearable technology.
Websites that place well under the new algorithm changes are likely to increase in their mobile traffic as a result.
What does Hummingbird mean for SEO?
Well, search engine optimisation changed somewhat with the introduction of Hummingbird. With Google Hummingbird, digital marketers have come to understand the most important thing to offer Google is context for the topics around which a page has been created.
Google has long considered page authority to be a significant ranking factor. With greater emphasis being placed on page content, authority will become even more important, and poses to make search results more relevant. The update hopes to ensure Google directs users to the most appropriate page of a website, rather than to a home page or top level page. Driving search traffic to these pages likely helps improve conversion rates on your site.
PageRank, which looks at how important links to a page are deemed to be, remains one of the major components of the Hummingbird algorithm. That’s why it remains important to consider link metrics and strive for cocitations. Promoting a relationship between your site and others allows Google to identify what your website or business deals in or with. We learned this with Penguin, but Hummingbird reaffirms how inbound links from topically irrelevant contexts are considered bad links.
So, what is even more important to the way agencies and businesses approach link building now is the context in which the link is present. That makes it worthwhile to leverage synonyms and cooccurring terms. We’ve covered this before in our guide to anchor text.
While keywords are still important, Hummingbird adds more strength to phrase-based queries, which effectively caters to the optimisation of content and questions that are asked naturally. With the growing number of conversational queries, namely those conducted using voice search, it’s important your page content covers informational queries, navigational queries and transactional queries. Phrases that ask ‘Who’, ‘What’, ‘Where’ and ‘How’ prove beneficial to SEO, and may help you return more rich results. So, guidance remains the same: Load your site with original, relevant, high-quality content.
Finally, one of the myths that spread fast when Hummingbird was first announced was that it used structured data as a main ranking factor. It remains integral to utilise structured data schema markup to indicate exactly what it is your page is about. As we mentioned above with regards to page content, you want Google to ‘know’ you have the answer to a searcher’s query. Let your SEO agency make sure that happens.