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.