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When Google announced at the end of September that Hummingbird had been live for a month or so, many questioned how such a significant change could have happened without it having been detected earlier.

Amit Singhal, Head of Google’s ranking team, talked about Hummingbird being the first time a completely new algorithm had been implemented since 2001 and that it impacted 90% of search queries.

However, the visible impact of this algorithm change has been less significant than many recent algorithm updates, such as the May 2012 Penguin update.

Immediate repercussions weren’t as big as expected

There seems to be a contrast between the severity of the change as stated by Google and its repercussions within the search results.

This leads us to conclude that although Hummingbird is a significant move, it is an upgrade in capabilities and that we will see the full impact of this change over the coming months and years.

What will Hummingbird allow Google to do?

Hummingbird allows Google to understand user intent more closely, with greater understanding of words like 'how' 'why', 'where' and ''when', as well as the user intent that sits behind these word.  

In combination, this helps Google deal with more complex, long-tail queries. This will allow Google to handle voice activated search queries more effectively, to keep up with their rising popularity on mobile devices (including Google Glass).

Having a better understanding of search query phrasing and the results users are looking for allows Google to make more use of its ‘answer engine’, the Knowledge Graph.

Why did Google launch Hummingbird?

Google needed to make this change to ensure its Search product is robust at answering users’ conversational-based queries in the mobile space, following its long-term mobile push.

In 2013, Google’s mobile initiatives included the launch of AdWords Enhanced Campaigns, Google Now on iOS and the redesign of the search results using the ubiquitous card layout.

This algorithm change to Hummingbird will support the mobile offering by allowing people to be more conversational with their search queries.

Google has made no secret of the fact it desires to become an answer engine, answering users’ questions rather than providing a list of URLs and I wrote about this trend on Econsultancy a year and a half ago.

Hummingbird makes greater use of the Knowledge Graph to provide content and increase the amount of time (and number of clicks) within Google.

What does Hummingbird mean for the future of SEO?

1. Natural language queries

  • Conversational search: With Google providing users with better search results to long tail ‘conversational search’ queries, this will likely encourage users to make longer search queries and use voice activated search more frequently.
  • Decline of the short tail: As users make more conversational search queries, the volume in the short tail will fall and SEO will become more about providing users with the right meaningful content as opposed to optimising existing content for high volume driving keywords.

    Matt Cutts, Head of Web Spam at Google, noted that: “the future is about things, not [keyword] strings”.

  • Content rather than keywords: In late 2012, Google stopped SEO tool providers, like SEMrush and RavenTools, from using organic ranking metrics alongside data pulled from the AdWords API.

    Further to this, Google began redirecting all users to SSL encrypted pages in September 2012, preventing Analytics from tracking keyword data.

    Not only is Google actively pushing the SEO community away from relying on keywords, but the expansion of pronoun capabilities in the algorithm will stop users typing them as frequently too (e.g. Google will understand a search of ‘how old is he’ or ‘how tall is it’ after a specific search for a person or landmark).

  • Greater fragmentation: SEOs will need to rely on device data to help determine intent (e.g. mobile users being more likely to look for local/nearby stores, desktop users potentially more likely to be at work etc.).

    One individual user may potentially move from mobile to tablet to desktop in the length of a single commute.

2. Improved search functionality

  • Websites must compete with the SERPs themselves: Google’s increased functionality means users will be less likely to click through to third-party pages unless it offers new information.

    Previously, a search for 'movies starring chevy chase' would likely cause users to quickly click through to IMDB. Now, a visually-appealing list of movies that can be sorted by age or popularity appears, letting users explore each one without leaving Google. Similar functionality now even exists for a comparative search, such as “foul play vs caddyshack”.

    Google Hummingbird

  • Popular searches will become even more popular: Google also displays results for searches with no definitive answers. For example, 'surrealist authors' or 'best presidents', based on who is ‘frequently mentioned on the web’.

    Once users are accustomed to clicking on these images rather than reviewing an external website and searching on their own, the most frequently high listing terms are the ones that will receive the most clicks, exponentially.

  • Users will still search for opinions and other details: Even if Google’s Knowledge Graph framework is more widely adopted, people will always want more information and supporting opinions.

    A search for “popular bands 2013” may reveal a list of names to explore, but users will still need to click through to other sites for music samples or album reviews. Offering content that Google cannot replicate will be more crucial as the SERPs start containing more information.

3. Socialising of search

  • Google answers the questions you’d have asked on Facebook: The Hummingbird algorithm update is another step in ‘socialising search’ by attempting to answer the questions users may have otherwise simply asked their friends and peers on social networks.

    Competitors have offered similar functionality, most notable in Facebook’s Graph Search and Apple’s Siri, so Google is aware it needs a robust platform in place to meet this demand.

  • Importance of social content and conversations continues to grow: Generating relevant conversations will become more significant, with a brand’s networks, audiences and influencers playing a major factor in its website’s ranking in the SERPs (especially with the predicted up-weighting of Author Rank).

    With this in mind, combining SEO and Social efforts will be critical in the planning and delivery of effective online strategies.

Conclusion

While we haven’t seen Hummingbird drastically change the SERPs, there are some clear implications and the industry should take note.

SEO campaigns should focus on the delivery of excellent content, optimising this for a breadth of long tail semantically-related keywords and ensuring the content is accessible cross devices.

Importantly, the success of SEO campaigns can no longer be based simply upon the ranking of short tail keywords. Instead, content performance needs to be assessed within the whole of the search ecosystem.

As Google’s answers to users’ questions improves, more people will turn to Google; as such, we continue to encourage our clients to no longer consider Search as an optional channel within the media mix but to consider Search at the outset of campaigns.

With Google evolving into more of an ‘answer engine’, brands need to consider how they can influence the answers that Google gives users by creating authoritative and useful content.

David Towers

Published 18 October, 2013 by David Towers

David Towers is Director Search and Digital Projects, EMEA at MEC and a contributor to Econsultancy.

6 more posts from this author

Comments (24)

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Red Cube Digital

It is a good news that Google new hummingbird update has make the web more spam free. Giving importance to on page and PPC is a good sign

almost 3 years ago

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David Burdon, Director at Simply Clicks

David,
A comprehensive summation. It's early days for Hummingbird. I've seen some strange Google results and for short tail and more competitive terms it appears that Bing is producing more stable and, some times, more relevant results. I imagine Google are working on this.

almost 3 years ago

David Towers

David Towers, ‎Digital Partner & Head of Search, EMEA at GroupM

@RedCubeDigital Good to read you're happy with the Hummingbird update! ;)

@DavidBurdon Thanks David. Agreed, it's definitely early days for Hummingbird. The Bing team will be happy you prefer their short tail results, but we will see the short tail results in Google better as more knowledge graph type content is fed into them...

almost 3 years ago

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AZ

If that means Google is giving small companies a fair chance without letting larger taking control of most search traffic, so much the better.

almost 3 years ago

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Swan Hyderabad

Yes , the hummingbird algorithm is extraordinary. It giving preference to the relevancy, and hurt the seo rankings who is applied spamming techniques especially spam backlinks.

almost 3 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

" this will likely encourage users to make longer search queries and use voice activated search more frequently."

I would imagine that with the rise of mobile technology voice activated search is only getting more and more prevalent. And when you can just talk to search your search query will sound like how you talk! Why limit yourself to a few keywords when you can just speak your thoughts aloud?

almost 3 years ago

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Alec Smart

Great article! If fact, your points are right on the money for Hummingbirds implications for SEO campaigns: Content is still king. When it comes right down to it, the more focused the campaign, the more likely it will succeed, especially if competition is low.

almost 3 years ago

Steven Wilson-Beales

Steven Wilson-Beales, Content Strategist at Consultant

The case for producing great content just keeps getting better...

Great overview...

almost 3 years ago

Jerry Okorie

Jerry Okorie, Search Consultant at UK

The algorithm might seem different but its still very much about what has been preached over the years.i.e Serve your customers with relevant content and answers their question as quickly and clearly as possible. It expands the use of the knowledge graph to help answer complex questions.

Google is looking to separate top content from all the rest and make sure that the information it provides users is indeed what they want. Google also seems to be trying to foster the end of keyword-focused content and instead bring attention to specific user questions and the intent of users as they search the Web.

A few best practices
1. Target long-tail phrases rather than just keywords to prepare for more semantic search.
2. Structure your website content to clearly and concisely answer all of the questions your users may have. (Hint: see how I formatted this post.)
3. Literally answer the “5 Ws” (Who, What, Where, When, and Why) and don’t forget “How” about any product or service you present.

almost 3 years ago

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Ian

Great article David, and one which I agree with. Semantic search has always been on the horizon even going back years, from a search perspective it's the utopia of search.

However this is still going to be a long way off because for semantic search for truly work websites and their content need to be structured to take advantage of the semantic algorithm. The websites that follow the approach that Jerry mentioned in the last comment, coupled with a semantic technical structure will be the ones best placed to take advantage of the search environment over the forthcoming years as it continues to evolve.

From Google's perspective they want to keep users within the Google environment (David - you mentioned Google showing movie details like IMDB) because ultimately it means that they can command increased ad revenue, although they have to be careful not to go down a content publisher route like Yahoo, and lose focus on their key product which is search.

almost 3 years ago

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Laura Brown

It has never been a better time to be a good copywriter :)

almost 3 years ago

Tim Aldiss

Tim Aldiss, Consultant/Director at ThinkSearch

Agree with David Burdon - I'm seeing some very odd results - far fewer exact match long string results and then alternative searches that I've found quite irrelevant. This is all in the long tail though, but as an advanced user I'm finding this change very disappointing as I've always used Google as a discovery engine for niche stuff. It could indeed play into Bing's hands nicely. Shame

almost 3 years ago

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Iain Macintyre

I think the fact that Google brings up George Bush when searching for 'Best Presidents' speaks a little for itself. Being a little crude of course, but it is still early days and difficult to draw many conclusions.

Very interested to see how it all develops, not too keen on the idea of voice recognition for search myself but hey that's just me.

I'm unlikely to move to another search engine unless things go very down hill with Google and I'd bet that would be the likely scenario for many.

almost 3 years ago

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Jason Rainbird

David,

We are entering a new age where the reliance is no longer on search but rather on the customers needs.

It will be no longer possible to look at historical data and then create content to match this. Now we must think like our customers do and deliver content that is appealing and relevant.

Jason

almost 3 years ago

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Richard Masters

I have already seen some major changes in some of the sites i manage. Some sites which previously would not rank for even long tail searches are now appearing on page one in preference to large sites with much higher Domain and page authorities.
I think the lesson for SEO's is: stop being SEO's and reinvent themselves as marketers. A number of the smarter ones have done this already!
It seems to me that customer intimacy is now the key and understanding your customers needs and pain points. In house teams are probably best positioned for this and we may see a shift from agencies and back to in house teams. What do you think?

almost 3 years ago

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Local SEO Search

Oh!! This post took hell out of me because : there isnot any post detailed than this before so my thought for this is great , thanks for the post , really appreciated....

almost 3 years ago

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Melanie

Interesting article and comments!

I think Google's push towards longer tail searches in interesting, but short tail will always exist, no matter how much they try to push users towards conversational search and long tail keywords. The browser vs. buyer mindset won't change - browsers will always first search for short tail keywords before perhaps using longer tail keywords to narrow their search once in the buyer mindset.

It's important to have presence in both of these

Mel

almost 3 years ago

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Mary June, Marketer at SMD

I have nothing against this update. In fact I am glad that Google finally figured out how to filter spam. Even though everyone is back at zero, those who really make an effort to product good and quality content for their market now have a greater chance to be noticed. Good stuff!

almost 3 years ago

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Steven Fromm

I think this update actually helps websites like mine that offer tax, estate and trust articles that are jammed filled with technical ideas and strategies. I have never engaged in SEO writing but just provided articles that could help my readers. This update would seem to help me and others who write from such perspective. Do you agree?

almost 3 years ago

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John Smith

Hummingbird algorithm update by the google is a clear sign that the google is trying to interact directly with people using its various service like finding solution for their problem whenever we try to find something most of our sentence starts with interrogative words or phrase in that way google is focusing on providing better service to the people through its search result and also it targeting the mobile device user as now a day internet connectivity on mobile device is very easy and efficient so most of the people using mobile device for searching their query, which also provide the voice search option and supports google's voice search application so this algorithm starting a new trend in SEO.

almost 3 years ago

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Widestate

New updates and changes always increase the quality of product and services. Yahoo and Google lastly worked out the way to separate out spam. With this new updates the browser will now search for best and qualitative keywords.

almost 3 years ago

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marck

google continues realing update but at the end it is the same things, sites with poor content but thousands of backlinks are on the top pages as always, what google really wants is that small business spend money on adwords.

almost 3 years ago

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Anand Umraniya

Coming of hummingbird's update, I'm sure most of the websites started using schema.org standards to enhance their onsite architecture and highlight the best snippets in SERPs.

almost 3 years ago

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Robert Weiss

Yes, I agree with marck. I believe google want small companies to advertise on google. I dont believe with Hummingbirds. It still show the site that have many backlinks on the first page, especially if you dare to advertise with adwords, your business/site will always serve on the first page. :(

almost 3 years ago

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