Hummingbird. Did you notice what Google did there?

What is Hummingbird?

At the end of September Google announced that it had started using a new search algorithm, which it has named “Hummingbird”. Interestingly at the time Google made it public Hummingbird had already been running for about a month. Some are saying that it’s the most dramatic rewrite of the search algorithm since 2001 (which in web terms is a time of yore, shrouded in the mists of antiquity).

Google claims that Hummingbird is not likely to cause any dramatic traffic shifts and, unlike previous updates (such as the infamous Panda and Penguin), there has so far been little sign of large changes in search rankings. If you have seen a difference then it could be Hummingbird but it’s highly likely that it’s instead  due to the release of Penguin 2.1 on October 4th.

So, what’s different about it?

Apart from the fact that it is, in effect, a completely new engine, Hummingbird’s main focus is on giving better results for conversational queries such as “womens shoe shops near my house”.
Panda & Penguin refined the way sites were indexed and rated, making it harder to game the system with black hat techniques, but Hummingbird is more about how our search behaviour is changing and is designed to increase the search engine’s ability to understand the context behind a search query. Hummingbird is more user-centric, it tries to reach a proper understanding of what you’re asking for, rather than simply analysing individual words.

This is all about making Google better at understanding what searchers actually want.

What does it mean for webmasters and SEO?

The most effective way to deal with Hummingbird is to simply keep doing the things you started doing during the recent seismic shifts in SEO (you did start doing all this… right?).

What follows is not a list of specific techniques for “gaming” Hummingbird, or search engines in general, but a summary of what is now required practice for SEO and for an effective presence on the web:

  • Identify needs and problems and focus on providing answers and solutions. Structure your website accordingly. In other words, know your audience.
  • Identify what makes you unique and make this clear in your content.
  • Blog regularly and provide other types of relevant, engaging content (Content marketing).
  • If you haven’t already, go social! You need a social media presence more than ever.
  • Focus on become a recognised authority in your field of endeavour (via the activities above). Build domain authority and attract links.
  • Stop focusing on minutiae such as individual keywords and instead focus on making sure your website pages deliver. Content rather than keywords!
  • Use Structured data and Authorship to help Google find relevant content.
  • Truth and Trust are becoming more important as Google becomes more sophisticated. Learn how to make these work for you.

We have said this before but Google is getting rather good at working out who really deserves to appear in the search results. It’s hard to fake it now and you shouldn’t be trying; it’s far easier to simply improve for real.

Don’t Panic

In the aftermath of previous Google updates, many sites, particularly those using black hat (or at least the darker shades of grey) SEO techniques, saw their rankings adversely affected. Some sites were heavily penalised for being over-optimised. This time around there has been concern that Hummingbird might have similar effects and this has not been helped by a large number of blog posts of questionable quality from self-proclaimed experts, especially those with something to sell. Considering the importance of inbound marketing these days, you can’t really blame them for trying to stay ahead but, in reality, we’ve seen very little change in SERPs that couldn’t be attributed to the normal fluctuations that affect all organic search results, or to the Penguin 2.1 update. In other words, as long as you’re following the standard, widely accepted best practices listed above, Google’s Hummingbird update shouldn’t be anything to panic about.