Google’s fifteenth birthday: Hummingbird

Oct 23, 2013 by
Google’s fifteenth birthday: Hummingbird

Google recently celebrated its fifteenth birthday by announcing the launch of its new search engine algorithm, known as “Hummingbird”, a name chosen to represent being “fast and precise”.

HummingbirdThe new algorithm was implemented over a month ago and presently affects approximately 90% of all online searches made through Google. While there have been several updates in recent years, such as “Penguin“, “Panda“, and infrastructure-upgrade “Caffeine“, this is the first time Google have implemented an entirely new algorithm since 2001.

Danny Sullivan, writing for popular search engine blogSearch Engine Land, likens Google updating its search algorithm to a car changing its engine, whereby updates such as Penguin and Panda were the equivalent of adding a new oil filter or having a pump put into the old engine. According to Google, Hummingbird represents an entirely new car engine, making use of old and new parts orchestrated together for the demands of today’s search enquiries.

Data versus answers

Hummingbird is a step in the right direction towards providing answers for the increasing prevalence of conversationally phrased search enquiries. Amit Singhal, Google’s senior vice president stated: “Remember what it was like to search in 1998? You’d sit down and boot up your bulky computer, dial up on your squawky modem, type in some keywords, and get 10 blue links to websites that had those words.” Times have certainly changed since then…

The new Hummingbird algorithm goes to lengths to interpret the semantic meaning in search queries, in addition to acknowledging the actual keywords. For this reason, words such as “how”, “why”, “when” and “where” are of paramount importance in generating search results, marking a transition from keywords to conversation, and from data to answers. With increased technological advancements in mobile devices, particularly in voice recognition, conversation based search engine enquiries are only going to become more popular, making upgrades such as Hummingbird a necessity for the future.

Impact for businesses

So, you’re probably thinking: how will this affect my business? Well, since Hummingbird was implemented over a month ago, the chances are if you’ve not encountered a significant drop in traffic up to this point then you’ve successfully survived the upgrade. However, the shift away from keyword based search results will undeniably give more power to smaller businesses who have not have the capital to secure a high ranking on Google for generic terms. For example, local businesses are likely to benefit from search inquiries that specify a product pertaining to a physical location because Google will understand that the user is not looking for an online retailer.

Since much more weight is now given to the meaning behind the words in search queries, the spoils of victory will now go to publishers who are able to tailor successfully their content to the needs of their prospective customers, instead of those who are able to secure dominance based on intensive keyword targeting. Google’s withdrawal of all keyword data last month is clearly also a message in this direction.

Ultimately, major changes such as Hummingbird always cause businesses to re-assess the methods they use to bring prospective customers to their sites. However, if your business has already been using SEO with integrity and producing high quality, valuable content to drive website traffic, Hummingbird will help ensure that you continue to be successful in the future.

Other improvements

Also part of Google’s fifteenth year celebrations, Amit Singhal announced an upgrade in Google’s Knowledge Graphs. By searching for terms such as “compare the Eiffel Tower to the Blackpool Tower”, Google will present you with two graphs side by side so you can compare key features such as height and date of construction.

Knowledge graph

Some knowledge graphs have also been added with filters (top right hand corner) to enable the user to switch between a different set of results, such as different genres of well known artists. However, as the screen grab below demonstrates, Google’s still not great at figuring out what’s actually in an image:

Renaissance images

What does this mean for our campaigns?

Although the Hummingbird announcement and the move to a completely new algorithm was a surprise, it has been clear that SEO has been moving in this direction for a while. The web itself has changed dramatically since Google’s launch, especially with respect to social media and how people share content with each other.

Back in the day, if you wanted to tell people about something great you’d found, you’d put up a quick blog post or page on Geocities and link to your find from there. Google has long been based around this type of linking behaviour. The problem is that many more people share content via various social media platforms now, and the web’s link graph is not what it used to be. Google has struggled with this change, but Hummingbird clearly marks the beginning of the end for link building and the continued rise of quality content and distribution.

Fortunately, we were already working on the basis that things were changing in this direction, and had been developing our strategies accordingly. We will be dropping link building (almost) entirely, in favour of more work on social media, more PR activity and, of course, content!

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