Google Hummingbird Algorithm Update: A Move to Conversational Search

A hummingbird is a very amazing creature. Did you know that hummingbirds are the smallest of the bird family yet they are amazingly fast and quick? In some cases their wings can reach 100 beats per second. That’s pretty quick for such a little bird. So when Google decides to make a major algorithm change, what do they use for a code name? Hummingbird of course… The name was most likely associated with the fact that Google is looking to help users find their information quicker when they perform a search on Google. What’s all the fuss about hummingbirds?

Well in August 2013, Google launched their largest algorithm update in years with their Google Hummingbird algorithm update.

What is Google Hummingbird?

Google Hummingbird, officially announced on September 26th, 2013, is basically a rewriting of Google’s Algorithm and focuses on Google’s interpretation of the answer that a user is looking for when they perform a query. The predecessor to Hummingbird was Google Caffeine in 2009/2010 which was more of an attempt to better crawl and index content.

With the Hummingbird algorithm update, Google is more focused on “ranking” sites better for relevance. Hummingbird is more about Google’s interpretation of the answer that a user is looking for when they perform a query. This interpretation is based on the information Google has around that query, personalized search activity, and search history.

Think of Hummingbird as Google moving away from trying to interpret “typed searches” to better understanding searches that are more colloquial or conversational in nature. Google states that Hummingbird is about better understanding concepts vs. words and the relationships of those concepts.

Hummingbird is about Google trying to produce a more intelligent search engine.

According to Google, each word in a query will receive attention with Hummingbird. This falls in line with data presented in recent years suggesting that the largest increase in search queries is for more complex, 8 or more word queries. (Read: People are becoming more savvy searchers or have a lot of questions). So it stands to reason that with increasingly complicated searches, Google’s results should be more relevant to the user’s query right? A smarter search engine is required.

Google is stating that the Hummingbird algorithm is much more intelligent than previous algorithms. It is able to answer questions, filter the answers and even present comparison data with but a glance. The algorithm is meant to provide the searcher with highly relevant results quicker than before.

In fact, Google is suggesting that you may not even have to leave their SERP because you will be able to find the answer that you are looking for via Knowledge Graph, carousel results or via the web pages that are served up. The data will be right there for the taking… or consuming in this case. This algorithm is more focused on semantics as opposed to the traditional robot-like “typed” queries that people search for. Google is using information from their database to anticipate the answer to your query. Part of the purpose for Hummingbird is to improve results for more complicated or conversational searches. There is a dramatic push for their Knowledge Graph results. Ultimately what Google is saying is that they want to provide the most relevant results as quickly as possible.

Google’s Hummingbird update is very different than the recent Panda and Penguin updates. Those algorithm updates were based on the existing algorithms and focused on things like low quality content, over-optimization and link spam. The Hummingbird update is a larger more powerful update that dramatically alters how Google returns the results that they do from their index.

According to Google, the Hummingbird update affected 90% of searches worldwide.

Two Main Changes with Google Hummingbird

  1. Move to semantic/conversational search results – instead of traditional keyword searches, Hummingbird uses conversational searches to deliver search results that are more on point with what users are looking for.
  2. More Focus on Complex Queries / Mobile search – with more and more people using mobile phones and mobile search, Google is attempting to better understand and anticipate the answers to what people are seeking on their mobile devices. According to Google’s SVP of Search Amit Singhal, “Google will keep reinventing itself to give you all you need for a simple and intuitive experience. At some point, pulling out a smartphone to do a search will feel as archaic as a dial-up modem.” Android anyone?

What Does this Mean for my Keyword Strategy?

You are probably wondering what this means for the keywords that you are focusing on? Well the days of optimizing a given web page for a given key phrase and having that page rank as a result are long gone. Of course keywords will always be a key component of the activity of searching. In fact I referred to the shift towards semantic search as part of keyword research in my piece on the future of keyword research in organic search earlier this year.

Areas that you need to consider as a result of Hummingbird:

  • The need for keyword analysis and keyword research has never been more important.
  • Pay attention to what your audience is searching for.
  • Avoid using marketing jargon in your messaging. The messaging on your site needs to be clear, concise and relevant to your audience.
  • Do not keyword stuff content but be aware of the semantic relationships of topics and phrases that you are optimizing for.

As an example, if your site sells “digital cameras” you are not solely going to “optimize” for just digital cameras. Your audience may be looking for information on: various brands, manufacturers, parts of the camera, accessories, photography, battery packs, memory cards, imagery, etc.

Google Hummingbird Algorithm

Be tuned into your target audience and what they are truly searching for.

You should be learning more about semantic search and about understanding the relationships, concepts and questions that your audience is seeking answers to. Understand the shift from “typed” keyword queries to more complicated semantic, conversational search.

At the end of the day, Hummingbird is focused (in part) on Natural Language Processing. Therefore the need to pay attention to hyper long-tail keyword queries or questions becomes tremendously important. Some have even gone so far to refer to this as evaluating the long-tail of the long-tail.

Google’s Amit Singhal was quoted as stating, “With more complex queries, the algorithm can better understand concepts vs. words as well as relationships between concepts.” It is no longer just about the keyword, it is more about the relationship of keywords and about the concept or question that a user may seek information about.

What is the Impact on My Content Strategy?

If you have not yet figured it out, content is the key to your success, especially from an organic search perspective. Hummingbird will have an impact on how you produce, optimize and promote your content.

Here are five areas to revisit as you establish your content strategies.

  1. Enhance existing content – revisit your existing content. Do you feel that it is of high quality? Does it satisfy the needs of someone looking for information about your brand or your solution offering? Is the content unique? Is the content engaging? Expand your existing content as required to help you address questions that your audience may have.
  2. Improve the level of detail in your product/solution descriptions, articles or blog posts – build themes and interlink relevant content where you have optimized for similar terms and topics. Be concise yet have enough detail that will allow the searcher to obtain the answer to their query.
  3. FAQs are important – providing detailed answers to frequently asked questions goes a long way. Work on being an authority. Provide the answers to the questions that your audience is looking for. Do not spam your FAQs with regurgatated content. Produce unique, fresh and informative content.
  4. Leverage Rich markup with your content – incorporate schema.org markup, authorship markup and rich markup in your content. Semantic markup is what Google and other search engines are moving towards. The use of schema or microdata can help the search engines better understand what is being discussed on your pages. Not familiar with schema? Why not get started now?
  5. Optimize for Mobile – again part of the Hummingbird update is Google trying to get better at parsing voice commands and questions from mobile devices. Optimizing your site for mobile search is critical to address this. Responsive design anyone?

Google Hummingbird is forming the foundation of the next wave of semantic search… the impact of which may take months or even years for the full effect to take place.

Additional Reads

Anniversary Announcement from Google

Google Hummingbird, and what it means for Online Marketers & SEO

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  1. [...] we have seen Google make is on how they handle keyword queries.  This was most evident with their Hummingbird update where there is a shift from “typed” queries in Google to more of a conversational search.  So [...]

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