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One of my favorite things about SEO is that it’s constantly evolving. But recently it’s been evolving, like, every day. Most of the changes have been negative in nature – new SEO practices that can get penalized, or Google Analytics removing keyword data from publishers. But this new one is big. Really big. Google just completely updated their search algorithm.
What is “Hummingbird?”
Unlike Panda and Penguin, Hummingbird is not a search update designed to punish certain SEO tactics. Instead, it’s a complete overhaul of the way the engine ranks sites. The new algorithm will still use elements of the old – links will still be important, for instance – but the primary focus is now on “conversational search.”
The way search worked before, for the most part, was as follows: a user typed in “What’s the best furnace replacement company Kansas City” and the algorithm crawled the web for trustworthy sites that contained phrases matching “best” “furnace” “replacement” “Kansas City.”
The problem with this is that Google only knows what the search says – it doesn’t know what it means. As a result, it was easy for things like technical manuals and manufacturer sites to rank when people wanted the number of a local HVAC company.
The new algorithm changes all of that. Now when you type in “What’s the best furnace replacement company Kansas City,” Google assumes you’re talking about a service company – goodbye technical manuals and manufacturer pages. It may also know the location of your home (if you’ve provided it), and can use that information to show you companies closest to you. Basically, Google is looking deeper into searcher intent, not just vocabulary.
Why do we need Hummingbird? Aren’t Panda and Penguin enough?
It’s true that Google updates their algorithm about 500 times a year. There have been a few notable updates beyond everyone’s new favorite animals, particularly 2010’s Caffeine update, but this is the first time in recent memory, possibly since as long ago as 2001, that the program has been completely rewritten in this way.
Needless to say, search demands have changed greatly since then. In fact, one of the biggest drivers of the update is the fact that more and more people are using their phones to search, creating the need for mobile websites, and a vast majority of those people are speaking their questions. Programs like Apple’s Siri are designed to handle much more complex queries that require intense mathematical formulas, and Hummingbird is a way to address this.
The funny part is this: while the queries themselves are getting more complex, they’re actually giving Google more context on which to base the results. The better information from users combines with the more advanced algorithm to give people just what they’re looking for.
According to Scott Huffman, a key engineer at Google, “we want to get a natural conversation between people and Google search, on whatever devices they’re using.”
Danny Sullivan from Search Engine Land made a great analogy when he mentioned that Google’s algorithm is like an engine (which makes sense, since it’s a search engine….anyway). Panda, Penguin and all the algo updates that came before were like replacing the filters and changing the oil – new parts to be sure, and they made the whole thing run more smoothly, but they didn’t really change anything overall.
Hummingbird, on the other hand, takes the engine out of your old clunker, yanks some parts off, inserts a brand new fuel injection and turbo system, then puts it back in – some parts stay the same, but overall it’s a vast and noticeable improvement from the old.
So what can I expect?
For users, you may not really notice much of a difference right away. Short keyword phrases like “home additions Washington dc” may not see any change at all. For longer searches geared more toward information seeking, however, you are almost guaranteed more appropriate search results across the board. The update officially went live almost a month ago, but since it was only just announced, it’s hard to do any before and after testing. But at a press event, Google did give some examples:
- A search for “pizza hut calories per slice” should now show PizzaHut.com instead of a third party site
- The search “pay your bills through citizens bank and trust bank” used to bring up the Citizen’s Bank homepage, whereas now it brings up the specific bill page
- Searching for “acid reflux prescription” used to list a number of different drugs, but should now list treatment options, with or without drugs
You can be sure the team at Blue Corona will be keeping our eyes on these developments and updating this as we find out more!
For publishers of the “right” kind of SEO, meaning those who publish valuable, high-quality content, this should still be business as usual. Like we said, the update rolled out a month ago, and we haven’t heard of any serious complaints from people saying their rankings have dropped, which almost always happens after a major update. And before anyone starts panicking, no, this doesn’t mean SEO is dead. We shouldn’t even to point out, of course, that this means, yet again, QUALITY CONTENT IS KEY!
Also good to keep in mind is that this update, unlike other recent ones, is not designed to punish anyone – its sole purpose is to improve the search results for users. If you’ve got good content, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
Where do these new results come from?
We should point out that search results based on user intent are not that new. We’ve written in the past about the concept of latent semantic indexing (LSI), wherein Google takes the words in your search query, looks for synonyms and possible correlations with other search phrases, and serves you up results based on what it thinks you want. Things like the Knowledge Graph were an extension of LSI, where Google would display all of the most interesting information about certain popular topics. This new algorithm is now a way to fully incorporate a more advanced version of LSI directly into the results.
Fun Facts About Hummingbird
- The algorithm is so named because hummingbirds in nature are “fast and precise”
- The announcement of the new algorithm was made on Google’s 15th birthday, in the very garage where the whole thing started
- Google also announced a new design for their tablets and phones, richer direct answers with comparison, a new song exploration feature and notifications of Google Now information for iOS 7
As usual, stay tuned to our blog for all the latest information about Google updates as they happen.
About The Author: Blue Corona is a data-driven online marketing company with offices in Gaithersburg, MD and Charlotte, N.C.
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