Explaining Google Hummingbird

Explaining Google Hummingbird

I’ve been contacted a couple of times recently by people who are concerned their website might have been “hit” by Hummingbird. I think it’s worth explaining a bit about this, because it’s causing a little confusion.

For those who haven’t yet heard of Hummingbird, it’s a relatively new algorithm, quietly introduced by Google with no particular fanfare back in August 2013 (Google didn’t even announce it until September, about a month after its launch).

There were no outcries from SEOs of websites losing traffic or ranking overnight; no one even really noticed anything new on the SEO radar. And that’s because Hummingbird could actually be good news for anyone striving to make their website a genuinely useful place for their visitors.

How does Hummingbird work?

As internet users get ever-more comfortable using search engines, their queries are becoming longer – more sophisticated and conversational. Smartphones are starting to use voice-activated search, too.

Google’s problem is how to interpret a user’s query to understand the type of information they’re looking for.  Hummingbird is a big leap forward in trying to understand the intent behind a search query.

For example, in the past, a user might have typed in “iPhone 5”. What does that mean? Are they looking to buy an iPhone 5? Do they want a review? Do they want product information? Google just wasn't sure how to interpret that; returning the right search results was tricky.

Today, a typical search might be “Where’s the closest place to buy an iPhone 5?”

This is where Hummingbird’s sophisticated algorithm comes into its own. It understands that “where” and “place” means you’re probably looking for a bricks and mortar building. “Buy” shows that you’re shopping. Your browsing history and location are often known to Google, too, so it can narrow down relevant search results even more.

It’s this growing understanding of semantic search that helps Google find the best match for a user’s query.

How does this help your website?

Google is moving away from the days when websites which are optimised for a few short phrases will win the best rankings in search results. So let's stop stuffing the same keywords into our pages over and over. Web pages that provide really specific, useful information are far more likely to be found by Google and returned in search results.

So if you know the sort of information your customers are seeking and the questions they’re asking, and you’re doing a good job of providing those answers on your website, there’s a much higher chance that your site will appear in search results, even for long and seemingly random search queries (in SEO we call them “long-tail” queries or keywords).

Hummingbird hasn’t been perfected yet, and it’s sure to evolve even more as time goes on, but it’s a step in the right direction, encouraging us all to strive towards genuinely informative and helpful websites and to have people uppermost in our minds rather than search engines.

And if your website has lost rankings and traffic?

If you’ve followed this so far, you’ll realise that Hummingbird doesn’t really work by penalising websites – it’s all about a better understanding of search queries.

If your website has seen a downturn in ranking and traffic recently, don’t panic straight away. There’s a possibility you’ve been penalised by Panda or Penguin (two other major Google updates rolled out over the last couple of years) but there could also be a logical explanation or it might be a temporary glitch that will right itself shortly.

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