Google Hummingbird: Who? What? Why?

Google HummingbirdIt’s been fifteen years since two PhD students at Stanford University started a company in Silicone Valley that would go onto be the world’s biggest search engine.


Since the company’s inception, Google has been tweaking their search algorithm in a variety of ways. The first algorithm, and really the foundation of their success, was PageRank (nicknamed BackRub) which used backlinks to rank pages given a certain search string. Instead of only relying on keywords, this innovative search type used links generated between pages to ascertain the relevance of a page to a query: meaning that it incorporated a ‘human’ factor to help it choose the most important pages. Since this innovation, Google have been making regular tweaks (such as the ‘Penguin’ update in 2012) which have all but gone unnoticed by the general public.


So what’s the deal with Hummingbird? Well, all but a few of the algorithm changes that have happened in the past have been minimal: this is the first time since 2001 that Google has totally redesigned their algorithm. What they’ve done this time that required the overhaul was change the way that the engine understands a query. Instead of simply searching individual words, Hummingbird will attempt to understand the full semantic meaning of a sentence, meaning that question words will be taken into account far more.


This is interesting because it marks a shift towards the ‘spoken word’ searches that are increasingly popular. Google understands the important of the smartphone market, as shown by their recent acquisition of Motorola, and their backing of the iPhone phobic’s Android platform. Apple’s Siri app has begun to change the way that many users relate to their devices, encouraging users to ask questions in a more ‘real’ way as phone’s become integral to our daily lives. It’s interesting to note that WolframAlpha, the search engine which powers Siri, has been able to search semantically since 2012, so Google is catching up to its rival with this update.

How does it affect me?

Well, as a casual user, it’s unlikely that you have seen much serious change in the working of the search engine. In fact, we have all been using the Hummingbird algorithm since August. For those who are SEO savvy it basically boils down to:

  • Personalised and specific information will matter more.
  • Localised data will matter more.
  • A greater emphasis will be given to social signals.
  • Niche or ‘unique’ content will be given greater weight.

For marketers it means a few things. The first thing that Google is trying to claim is that it means that people are more likely to stay longer on the search page, meaning precious ad money will go further. It is also nearly the death of ‘spamdexing’ (any SEO process of stuffing a page with keywords or false information to boost your rating). Finally, an encryption of keyword data means that you can no longer track which words users used to get to your site.

Which all boils down to one thing:

That genuinely good content is Google’s new nectar.


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