What is Google Hummingbird?
Unlike the Panda and Penguin updates, which were added to Google’s existing algorithm, Hummingbird is said to be a complete rewrite of the algorithm’s core.
Even though it’s thought that many of the old parts of the core algorithm stayed the same, Hummingbird showed that Google was committed to getting better at figuring out what searchers want to give them more relevant results.
Google told the world about Hummingbird on September 26, 2013, but it had been in place for about a month before that. Unlike Panda and Penguin, which caused a lot of people to report lost traffic and rankings, Hummingbird didn’t seem to have a big negative effect on the web as a whole.
Most people thought it would improve the accuracy of Google’s knowledge base, which is called the “knowledge graph.” But people in the local SEO community thought that effects had been seen in the local search engine results, which was backed up by evidence.
Semantic Search and the Knowledge Graph
To fully understand what Hummingbird was meant to do, you need to know about the search engine features it changed the most, which are semantic search and the knowledge graph.
Google’s knowledge graph was released a year before Hummingbird. It’s not a real graph, but rather a set of SERP features that are meant to give users quick, accurate answers to their questions about people, places, and things.
When you search for “chocolate chip cookies,” the results page shows how the knowledge graph works.
The SERP has the usual organic results and links to relevant websites, but it also has a lot of knowledge graph data, like an answer box with a recipe, a right-hand knowledge panel with nutritional information about the dessert, and suggestions for related search terms.
How does Google know that these results are what the searcher was looking for and that they meet their needs? The semantic search comes into play here.
Semantic search tries to match SERP results to the language of Internet users’ queries beyond the meanings of individual keywords. It does this by taking a wider context into account, even if the user isn’t clear about what they want.
Look back at the “chocolate chip cookies” SERP picture above to see how semantic search works. Even though the search was for the cookies themselves, semantic search figured out that even though the words used in the search query could be taken literally to mean images or a definition of the cookies, the intent behind the search was different than the words used.
Google then gave results that fit the searcher’s intent instead of the language they used. Because of this, the SERP is full of recipes, nutrition information, and other information about making or eating cookies.
Google says that their growing knowledge of semantic search lets them understand “real-world entities and their relationships to each other.” Hummingbird tries to match the context of a search query to the results. It does this by using Google’s smart technology, which can figure out what the user wants.
Semantic search is a complicated topic, so here’s another example of how it works on the web. Imagine that someone uses Google to look for the best place to learn Chinese. Google can only figure out that “place” means a restaurant and “Chinese” means a certain kind of food at a restaurant when it knows the meaning and context of the search.
Characteristics of a Hummingbird
One of the main goals of Hummingbird was to make the semantic search a real thing, which would eventually become the standard way to search. It tried to get a better idea of what people want when they search, so that when someone searches for something like “Chinese food,” they get a list of local Chinese restaurants to choose from instead of the best places to live in China or other irrelevant information.
Voice Search and the Hummingbird
In hindsight, Google’s Hummingbird update could be seen as a step toward mastering the rise of voice search, which is inevitable. “Conversational search” was making waves in the SEO community when Hummingbird came out in 2013.
In just a few years, voice search has made it necessary for Google to be able to fully understand natural language. This is because searches like, “Where’s the cheapest place near me to get Mexican food?” are done by speaking the words. or “How do I fix a kitchen faucet that leaks?”
In short, technology that can only understand search language keyword by keyword can’t figure out what people are trying to say. Semantic search and updates like Hummingbird are built to work well in a world where people use natural language.
Local Search and the Hummingbird
While the organic SEO community tried to figure out what effects Hummingbird would have on the web as a whole, the local SEO community had to deal with what they thought were some of the effects of the update.
At first, it seemed like Hummingbird filled a lot of local search results with unsatisfactory “one-boxes.” For example, a search for “lawyer in Denver” would only return one answer in a box instead of the usual list of local businesses.
Because many of these one-boxes were rewarding businesses that were spamming Google by using fake business names (like “Denver attorney” instead of “Law Office of Jim Davis”), Google wasn’t giving users a relevant experience. Most of the problems with this frustrating situation were solved in the end.
Local SEO experts also thought that Hummingbird might have had the following effects on local and local organic results:
- More localized organic search results for searches with a local focus
- A large number of directory-type results that keep showing up in the local organic results
How Can I Tell if I’ve Been Impacted by a Hummingbird?
Even though spammy one-boxes may have temporarily hurt the visibility of local businesses in search engines, it’s unlikely that this update hurt most websites.
If you think that Hummingbird may have caused a drop in traffic or rankings on your site, you should look at a full list of Google updates. It’s possible that a change on your website was caused by an update, like Panda or Penguin.
With Hummingbird, It’s Not About Recovery—about Its Chance!
Hummingbird let all website owners know that Google wanted to get a better idea of what people want when they search by looking at the whole search query instead of just a string of keywords.
The best way for website owners to use this is to make sure the site’s content is written in natural language. Hummingbird could be seen as a bridge between old, spammy SEO techniques and modern SEO, which tries to talk to readers in their own words and their language.
Websites can try to get picked by Google as good resources for certain topics if they know how to find and publish the answers to the most common questions people ask.
When your content seems to match what people are looking for, there is a chance that it will rank well organically and locally, and there is also a chance that it will show up in a SERP feature like an answer box or knowledge panel.
Serving the searcher’s intent should be one of your top SEO priorities in today’s results, and you’ll want to use a mix of direct interaction with your audience, keyword research, and topical research to help your website become more visible.