Yesterday, Google announced the biggest change to its algorithm in three years: the Hummingbird update.
The update is designed to provide more accurate results when faced with natural prose questions from web searchers. It was launched quietly a month ago and affects 90 per cent of searches worldwide, according to senior vice president of search Amit Singhal.
The Drum asked a cross-section of the search marketing industry to discuss the implications of the update for search marketing and what Hummingbird means for search as a whole.
Essentially ‘Hummingbird’ is about re-engineering Google’s search algorithm for today’s consumers rather than 10 years ago. More people are using conversational search queries, and much more complex queries, when finding information they want and using devices such as their mobiles as the starting point on Google.
Nothing has changed for brands; in order to be successful in SEO the key is still to create relevant and interesting content that delivers real value for their consumers.
Unlike a lot of recent updates to Google’s ranking algorithms this doesn't pertain to spam but rather the context of where content appears against search queries. This differs from traditional keyword matching in that it tries to match documents based on the underlying user intent.
The announcement of this integration is a major step forward in artificial intelligence and may represent a step change in the way that SEO practitioners optimise content, since there will be less focus on the exact phrases used and more on the underlying meaning. It’s all about trying to deliver better search results for consumers, which is a good thing.
Google is trying to give more semantic search results so that the intent behind any given search query is met with results that match that intent, which ultimately provides Google search users with a better results experience.
As queries get more complicated, Google needs to provide more specific answers. The key emphasis is on ‘answers’ rather than ‘results’, with Hummingbird paying particular focus to conversational search. Personally it appears like this is a change to reflect and accommodate the ever increasing use of search on mobile devices. Query types and user intent can be quite different on mobile devices because they often take place in a different setting.
Genuinely helpful/relevant sites will gain more visibility, and poor quality/ thin content sites will suffer. I think it will give greater credit to sites adopting a more conversational approach to the content they host rather than sites that cleverly use the keyword in strategic places such as the heading tag and h1 tag.
We have noticed some positive gains in the search rankings for some big brands again over the last few weeks, but the changes so far appear to be quite subtle and are affecting longer tail search queries more than head terms that normally feel the greatest effect of any Google algorithm update.
Having spent the day intermittently playing with Google’s Birthday Google doodle I thought it was time to do some real investigation and gather impressions on Hummingbird. The good news being that as official launch was a month ago and not in line with the birthday celebrations, if you haven’t seen drops now, you are unlikely to.
Hummingbird is about search and answers – is Google not always about search and answers? Well actually, the algorithm has been evolving from search and discovery to this from some time. While this is the first iteration of a brand new algorithm probably since Caffeine in 2010, we have seen Google refining the quality of sites returned in its search results via Panda and Penguin and all of this has been underpinned by an increasing improvement to the nature of semantic search.
In Hummingbird Google search has produced its most refined semantic algorithm yet. The results returned are providing answers and answers linked to broader answers that are all intrinsically linked to the user’s needs – a reminder that the quality of links is as important as ever.
In ensuring the quality of authority links pointing to your authority content you are ensuring Google will find the most relevant and trusted group of answers targeted to the user’s question or intent.
Why Hummingbird? Google says it’s faster and more precise. I like it already!
Google launched the Knowledge Graph, and the associated knowledge cards, last year. They are the special results that appear when searching for things like “things to do in Paris”, and demonstrated that Google understands, to some extent, the meaning of a search term and therefore is better able to return results for it.
The unveiling of Hummingbird shows Google has taken the algorithm behind the Knowledge Graph and applied it to the entire index instead of just the Knowledge Graph.
It’s the next step in Google’s quest for artificial intelligence.
Practically, this seems to mean the Google algorithm now considers more carefully full sentences rather than having emphasis on individual words.
I wouldn’t get too excited about this being a massive change that is going to start causing huge fluctuations in rankings. Google said it started using it about a month ago, so unless it has started small and is planning on ramping it up later, which is somewhat possible, the impact has already happened.
But the way Hummingbird is said to work does have some obvious implications for SEO. Looking at full sentences, instead of just words on a page, means some trusty approaches to optimisation, particularly optimising ‘automatically’ by having repetitions of keywords on pages by virtue of their appearance in headings, titles, navigation elements, footers etc… aren’t going to be as effective.
The rise in mobile usage and voice search has fundamentally changed the way we interact with Google. We are now more likely to ask Google a direct question through SIRI (or Google Glass!) and expect the correct results first time every time. The latest Google update is Google stepping up to this challenge and is a major evolution in how the search engine views a user’s query and the documents it has at its disposal to return as answers to that query.
Pre-Hummingbird Google would draw key words from a query and use pattern match to match those to its document index. Post-Hummingbird Google understands far more about the intention and context of the query, its temporal urgency and the exact requirements of that particular user at that particular moment. Google now knows way more than it ever has about online entities (Semantic Search) and can now do a much better job of providing personalised answers to an individual’s query.
In a post-Hummingbird world, websites need to work in harmony with their audience. Basic brochure sites will be a thing of the past as audience engagement and feedback is rewarded. The lesson is clear; be the best, provide the best answers by knowing and serving your customers and Google will reward you.
Hummingbird is designed to help Google better understand more conversational searches, searches via mobile devices and those via voice search; giving more meaning to search queries based on context and semantics. The evolution of voice technology on phones and tablets will undoubtedly encourage more and more people to use it in the future, which will create a greater level of conversational search questions.
In the past, if I typed in "how do I change the toner on my Lexmark C544?", the emphasis would have been on the words "toner" and "Lexmark C544". So the results would have been heavily affected by printer toner retailers. But with Hummingbird, the likelihood is that the words "how do I" will be given higher weighting, meaning Google is more likely to return answers that are more genuinely helpful.
Hummingbird was actually implemented a month ago, and apparently affects 90 per cent of searches. But barely anyone has noticed. So the short term impact is not necessarily massive. That said, SEO will feel the change in several ways:
For the SEO practitioner, it really means more of the same, but with a slightly new emphasis. There will be yet more focus on good quality on-site content as high quality links remain important. There will be an increased focus on long tail key phrases, which represent the more conversational type of query that Hummingbird plays to. There will also be greater emphasis on optimising for mobile searches, as these, and voice searches, are clearly where the market is moving.
It's very, very exciting, and clearly hugely important to Google, and Amit Singhal personally given they announced it from the Menlo Park garage where they started out.
Right now we're not seeing massive changes, which is credit to the work Google has done to roll Hummingbird out quietly and smoothly. Long term we believe it will lead to some reconsideration of how we think about SEO in practice, because the focus on single keyphrase targets is likely to be reduced as Google improves what it can do with Hummingbird and users become more familiar with the new more conversational way of searching it offers.