Google Rolls Out Hummingbird Algorithm - What Does It Mean for Search?
Google officially announced the launch of its new algorithm, Hummingbird, at a media event in Silicon Valley on September 26, 2013 in celebration of the search engine giant's 15th anniversary. In fact, Google states that the algorithm was actually released quietly and gradually over the past month.
This new upgrade marks the biggest change to the Google algorithm since the Caffeine rollout announced in June 2010, which primarily amended Google’s indexing system to provide searchers with fresher results. Hummingbird affects 90% of global search results, and will impact many parameters contributing to organic rankings. Google has yet remained reticent about the technical details of this new beast, but here's what we do know.
What Does Hummingbird Mean for Google?
So what's the big fuss? After all, search algorithms are updated several hundred times a year, and are sometimes even given names, such as the infamous Panda update of February 2009. The majority of these updates are subtle refinements rather than an overhaul of the core algorithm.
Hummingbird, on the other hand, replaces the previous core algorithm, Caffeine, which has been in effect since June 2010. Recent modifications such as Panda and Penguin are still in full throttle, contributing to Google's core algorithm along with many other ranking factors that make up the big picture.
Hummingbird aims to improve search results from a "conversational search" perspective. This means the algorithm is able to parse complex search phrases to understand the concepts behind the query. Previously, search engines analyzed queries on a word-by-word basis. This latest upgrade, therefore, can be seen as an exciting development in semantic search.
What Does Hummingbird Mean for Searchers?
When a searcher types a question into the Google search box, Hummingbird will attempt to discern user intent. Google will then display pages that answer the "why" – as in, "Why did this searcher ask this question?"
This new development differs significantly from the way in which search engines have traditionally operated – up until now, they have typically displayed the "what" by analyzing search phrases on a word-by-word basis and returning pages optimized for those specific keywords. Now, however, Google will display pages that are semantically relevant to a user's query. It might best be understood as a question-and-answer system rather than a keyword-based system.
Let's look at an example. A searcher might make the query, "What are the best places to eat in New York?" Rather than displaying web pages optimized for such keywords as "best", "places", and "New York", the SERPs will return pages that directly address user intent, such as "The Top 10 New York Restaurants". One can see that neither the word "best" nor "places" is contained within the title of this web page – these keywords may not even be heavily featured within the page content itself.
This concept of semantic search isn't new. Google was already making significant forays into the world of semantic search with the inception of the Knowledge Graph last year. With the implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm, "conversational search" is now being adopted web-wide, independently of such previously released features as the Knowledge Graph and Google Now.
Finally, the Hummingbird algorithm improves user experience for the increasing number of people using voice search on mobile devices, who tend to frame their queries conversationally. These question-based queries tend to be long tail in nature. This means that users can look forward to asking increasingly complex questions using everyday speech, and Google will provide timely and targeted answers. Thus, search will be more humanized.
What Does Hummingbird Mean for SEO?
Because Hummingbird is geared towards providing answers for more complex search strings, it appears to affect long tail queries more so than basic queries containing one or two primary keywords – so don't give up your keyword research and on-page optimization.
There is a potential drawback, however: As Google aims to answer an increasingly diverse array of questions directly through the Google interface itself, this may translate to a lower CTR and less visibility for certain websites which previously provided the answers to those queries. In such cases, webmasters would do well to diversify by applying other types of promotional strategies to maintain brand visibility.
As always, the prime objective of Google's algorithm is to return relevant results and improve user experience, so as long as webmasters continue to align SEO campaigns with this goal, Google will continue to reward them with an edge in organic rankings.
SEO isn't dead and content is still king. Webmasters should carry on using tried and true SEO strategies such as creating high quality content and link building, while incorporating other types of promotion such as social media campaigns.
Finally – if your own website hasn't taken a hit in rankings yet, you can breathe easy, because you've already survived the rollout.