Google Hummingbird: What Do We Know?

By Amy @BubbleJobs

Last week came the news that no one had been expecting: Google had completely replaced its existing algorithm with a brand-spanking new one a month ago. The Big G made the announcement a day before its fifteenth birthday and needless to say, the SEO industry has been busy speculating about the change ever since.

Nearly a week in, I thought it was about time we looked at what we know so far about the shiny new Hummingbird algorithm – and what it might mean for the industry moving forwards.

What Is It?

The new Hummingbird algorithm (what is Google’s obsession with animal names by the way?!) is a brand new algorithm which determines how well sites rank in the organic results. According to the search engine, the new algorithm is designed to be more precise and faster than its predecessor and should place more focus on semantic search – ie. trying to understand the intent of the user’s search, rather than just focusing on the individual keywords they use. Danny Sullivan sums it up pretty nicely on Search Engine Land:

“Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query – the whole sentence or conversation or meaning – is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.”

When Did It Come In?

We’re not exactly sure – but according to Google, the roll out began around a month ago from the date the announcement was made – so possibly around the end of August.

shutterstock_144959884Why Did No One Notice?

Well, to be honest, some people did notice. As regular readers of this blog will know, some of us in the industry noticed something was amiss in the organic results around the beginning of September. As I mentioned in my blogs on 28th August and 9th September, the SERPS suddenly started fluctuating wildly, with the most random results appearing at the top of the results… and it just didn’t make sense… until now. Forget the two possible mystery updates; it’s now more likely the random SERPs were the result of the roll out of Hummingbird and its following tweaks.

Did Anyone Expect This?

Although it’s safe to say that no one expected Google to roll out a completely new algorithm, the SEO industry has been talking about a move towards semantic search for at least a year or so now… so it’s not really that much of a surprise that the new algorithm has incorporated this. Similarly, Google’s nod to structured data, particularly, over the last few months makes sense now – because this type of mark up helps them to better match up the type of content on a site to the search query and user intent.

Does This Mean Penguin & Panda Are No More?

To put it bluntly; no. Although brand new, the new Hummingbird algorithm still incorporates elements of the old algorithm – including Panda and Penguin. Danny Sullivan described Hummingbird as a brand new engine for Google which still needs some of the old parts to make it function. This means things like Penguin, Panda and possibly even Page Rank (although that’s debatable!) will still continue to be incorporated into the new algorithm.

How Big A Deal Is This?

In one word: big. This is the first time the algorithm has been completely rewritten since 2001 so it’s definitely going to go down in the SEO history books. Wait a minute; what about Caffeine? Well, the Caffeine update came into play in 2010 – but that was bought in to help Google gather through information, rather than sort it – so it can’t really be compared.

What Does This Mean For The SEO Industry?

Well, as Hummingbird is now placing a bigger focus on semantic search, SEOs are now going to have to focus on producing content and pages that better serve a purpose and provide an answer to the user’s intent – by this I mean, they not only have to think about what a user wants from their search – but why they’re making that search and what type of content will best answer their query.

To this extent, I think keywords are definitely going to play less of a key role (lucky really, since we can’t even determine which keywords are driving traffic anymore anyway!), and instead the focus is going to go on producing content which “covers all bases” related to user intent – eg. rather than just producing a brief product page related to “dog kennels”, it might be a good idea to write detailed articles on everything from the types of dog kennels available, how to build a dog kennel, how to choose a dog kennel, how to prolong the life of a dog kennel etc… It’s all about ensuring your site provides the best and most appropriate answer for every user intent related to the search.

Hmm, saying that, I wonder if it’s a coincidence that Google’s going to start including in depth articles in the organic results sooner rather than later…

Should SEOs Be Worried?

Not really. If you’ve been focusing on building quality content and you’ve not noticed a significant drop in Google organic traffic over the last four weeks or so, you haven’t really got anything to worry about. On the other hand, if your traffic has nosedived since the end of August, there’s a pretty strong chance Hummingbird could be the blame. If this is the case, it’s definitely time to review your site, content and site architecture and devise a new strategy which takes semantic search and user intent into account.

As ever I’m definitely keen to hear your thoughts. Have you welcomed Hummingbird with open arms? Or do you think this is the latest nail in the so-called SEO coffin? Leave us a comment below.

Comments 3

  1. Very good article, Amy!
    As long as people use search engines when looking for information, there will always be SEO – so no, I do not think that this is a nail in the SEO coffin. Instead, SEO might change. Instead of changing along with algorithm updates, however, it is important to keep the user in mind. I still find that many SEOs only really start to move after an algorithm update, instead of looking for new, user-focused possibilities on their own to improve and be one step ahead of competitors and algorithms.
    For instance, if anyone really ever considered the increasing number of people using the internet on mobile devices, it would not hit them by surprise if one day an algorithm update considered mobile search and adapted to it somehow. What I am saying is, if you consider users’ natural behaviour when using search engines or when scrolling through your website, algorithm updates are very unlikely to hit you hard.

    As a user, I definitely welcome the recent development of Google’s algorithm. As an SEO focusing on high-quality content, I am not that worried either. Search engines are only trying to understand and mimic users’ behaviour. Do the same, and everything is going to be fine. Only challenge might be finding good writers and, probably, new approaches to well-known topics.

    1. Hi Gianna,

      Thanks for the comment. I definitely agree – Google’s been hinting at a move towards semantic search for a while now so I really don’t know why that many people are actually surprised

      I definitely agree about the point of considering the user and trying to anticipate changes based on user behaviour and experience – and agree that high quality content is the way to go – however, as we know, Google doesn’t always favour the ‘best’ or ‘most relevant’ content when it comes to the organic SERPs – very annoying! 🙂 .

  2. Google has been changing its algorithm from time to time and always wondered what is it and what they do. But after reading this article I must say that I totally understand what is it and how does it impact.

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