Launch date: August 22, 2013
Hazards: Keyword stuffing; low-quality content
Unlike the previous Panda and Penguin updates which were initially released as add-ons to Google’s existing algorithm, Hummingbird has been cited as a complete overhaul of the core algorithm.
While it’s believed that many preexisting components of the core algorithm remained intact, Hummingbird signaled Google’s commitment to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the intent of searchers’ queries with the goal of matching them to more relevant results.
Google announced Hummingbird on September 26, 2013, but it had actually already been in place about a month prior. Whereas previous algorithm updates like Panda and Penguin sparked significant reporting of lost traffic and rankings, Hummingbird did not appear to have drastic negative impacts on the general web. It was largely understood as having a positive influence on the accuracy of Google’s knowledge base known as the “knowledge graph.” However, the local SEO community theorized that documented effects had been felt in the local search engine results.
The knowledge graph and semantic search
In order to fully understand the purpose behind Hummingbird, it’s important to first be familiar with the search engine features it most heavily impacted: semantic search and the knowledge graph.
A year prior to the release of Hummingbird, Google launched its knowledge graph: not an actual graph, but rather a set of SERP features designed to provide quick, accurate answers to users’ queries about people, places and things.
You can see the knowledge graph in action on the results page yielded upon searching for “chocolate chip cookies.” The SERP does contain standard organic results and links to suitable websites, but it also contains a rich set of knowledge graph data, including an answer box with a recipe, a right-hand knowledge panel featuring nutritional facts about this dessert, and suggestions for related search subjects.
Semantic search attempts to match appropriate SERP results to the language of Internet users’ queries beyond the meanings of individual keywords, taking a broader context into account, even when the intent of the user is implicit rather than explicit. To see the semantic search in action, take a look back at the “chocolate chip cookies” SERP image above. Even though the query was for the cookies themselves, semantic search extrapolated that despite the words used in the search query (which, taken literally, could refer to images or a definition of the cookies), the intent behind the search differed than the language used. Google then served up results that match the searcher intent rather than searcher language. As a result, we see a SERP full of recipes, nutritional facts, and other topics related to making or eating the cookies.
Google’s increasing mastery of semantic search enables them, in their own words, to understand “real-world entities and their relationships to one another.” Hummingbird’s focus on matching query context to results relies on the intelligence of Google’s technology — the ability to parse intent.
Semantic search is a complex topic, so here’s another example of how this works on the web. Imagine that a Google user types or speaks this search engine query: best place for Chinese. It’s only by understanding the intent and context of such a query that Google can identify “place” as signifying a restaurant and “Chinese” as signifying a specific type of restaurant food.
Hallmarks of Hummingbird
One of Hummingbird’s main purposes was to translate semantic search from a concept to a reality — and one that would ultimately become the search standard. It sought to better approximate the true intent of searches so that, for a query like the Chinese food example referenced above, the user receives a set of local Chinese restaurants to choose from, rather than results for the best places for people to live in China or other irrelevant data.
Hummingbird and local search
While the organic SEO community strove to understand the effects of Hummingbird on the general web, the local SEO community dealt with some perceived fallout from the update. Initially, Hummingbird appeared to populate numerous local results with unsatisfactory “one-boxes”. For example, a query like “Denver attorney” would yield a single answer set apart in a box instead of the typical set of local businesses. As many of these one-boxes rewarded businesses that were spamming Google via the use of false business names (e.g. listing themselves as “Denver attorney” instead of their actual name of “Law Office of Jim Davis”), Google was failing to deliver a relevant experience to users. This frustrating scenario was eventually resolved for the most part.
Additionally, the local SEO community speculated that Hummingbird may have had the following effects on the local and local organic results:
- A greater localization of the organic results for queries with a local intent
- A continued, substantial presence of directory-type results in the local-organic results
How can I discover if I’ve been hit by Hummingbird?
While local business owners may have experienced some temporary problems with spammy one-boxes decreasing their local search engine visibility, it’s unlikely that most websites experienced negative impacts from this update.
If your website experienced a drop in traffic or rankings that you believe may have been tied to Hummingbird, definitely take a look at a complete list of Google updates. It may well turn out that the agent of change for your website was another update, such as Panda or Penguin.
With Hummingbird, it’s not about recovery — it’s about the opportunity!
Hummingbird signaled to all website owners that Google had its sights set on an increased understanding of the true intent behind users’ searches, looking at whole queries for context instead of treating them like strings of keywords.
The most practical application of this for website owners is to ensure that natural language is reflected in the site’s content. Hummingbird may be seen as bridging the gap between old, spammy practices and modern SEO which seeks to speak the natural language of readers, using their own words.
Websites that deftly identify and publish the answers to the public’s most popular queries can seek to become chosen by Google as relevant resources for particular topics. When your content is seen as matching searcher intent, there is an opportunity not only to rank well organically and locally but also to place in a SERP feature such as an answer box or knowledge panel. In today’s search engine results, serving the intent of the searcher should place high on your list of SEO priorities, and you’ll want to use a combination of direct interaction with your audience, keyword research, and topical research to help your website achieve improve its visibility.