The Google Hummingbird Algorithm

Little hummingbird gravy ...
If you don’t get it, look it up.

Today, Google announced an update to their Search algorithm, dubbed “Hummingbird” that supposedly affects 90% of queries worldwide. (Compare that to the Panda and Penguin updates that were only said to affect single-digit percent of queries). The announcement came at a press conference at Google’s headquarters where journalists were bussed to the now-famous garage in Menlo Park where founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin started the company.

From what I can tell, this event was held to commemorate Google’s 15-year anniversary and presenters included the owner of the home where the company was founded, VP of Marketing Susan Wojcicki, as well as Amhit Singhal (Senior VP of Search) and Tamar Yehoshua (VP of Search).

What Exactly Is “Google Hummingbird”?

In the usual Google style, company representatives seemed to have kept a pretty tight lid on what this algorithm change is all about. Here’s what I’ve been able to find so far from the accounts of those who were in attendance:

From TechCrunch:

While they did say that this was the biggest overhaul to their engine since the 2009 “Caffeine” overhaul (which focused on speed and integrating social network results into search) and that it affects “around 90% of searches”, there wasn’t much offered in terms of technical details…

 

The main focus, and something that went repeated many a time, was that the new algorithm allows Google to more quickly parse full questions (as opposed to parsing searches word-by-word), and to identify and rank answers to those questions from the content they’ve indexed. [source]

 

From Forbes:

Singhal returns with one more update on a change Google recently made. We have changed Google’s engines mid-flight again, he says. We probably didn’t notice, he adds. Basically, it updated the algorithm to something Google calls Hummingbird. It affects 90% of searches worldwide. He’s not specific about what it does…

 

Q: How big a change is Hummingbird? Singhal says it’s as big as the change to the last algorithm, known as Caffeine. It happened about a month ago.

 

Q: How specifically is Hummingbird better: Singhal says it’s essentially to better answer the much more complex queries people are making. It impacts all kinds of queries, but far more effective on long, complex questions that we’re getting many more of now.

 

Q: Examples? Hard to be specific, but essentially, with more complex queries, the algorithm can better understand concepts vs. words as well as relationships between concepts.

 

Q: How is this different in nature from Caffeine? This is clearly more focused on ranking sites better for relevance, while Caffeine was more focused on better indexing and crawling of sites.

Hummingbird gave us an opportunity to rethink how we can reuse all these new services to improve search results.

 

And, from the same article, an interesting bit the author gleaned from a post-event conversation with Google Engineer Scott Huffman:

After the event, Scott Huffman, a key engineering director at Google currently working on natural language, told me that part of the impetus for the change was that as more people speak searches into phones, they’re doing so in a more natural way than they type in queries–which is to say more complicated. So Google’s search formulas needed to be able to respond to them. Partly that is through even great use of the Knowledge Graph, so obvious discrete terms can be identified quickly. But it’s also interesting that although queries are getting more complex, that doesn’t always mean it’s harder to find the right answers. The more terms people use, Huffman says, the more context Google can divine. So those extra words, even if they’re in a more complex query, can give Google better information–but only if the algorithms are adjusted to be able to recognize the relationship among those terms. Ultimately, he says, “we want to get to a natural conversation” between people and Google search on whatever devices they’re using. [source]

[This will be updated as more information comes in]

What We Know About Hummingbird

So, according to the journalist’s accounts who heard it from the horse’s mouth, Google Hummingbird:

  • Is the biggest update since “Caffeine” (2009)
  • Affects 90% of searches worldwide
  • Impacts all kinds of queries, but “far more effective” on long complex questions
  • More focused on ranking sites better for relevance (as opposed to Caffeine that focused on better indexing and crawling)
  • Will help Google better understand concepts (vs words) as well as relationships between concepts

Some Thoughts On How Hummingbird Will Affect SEO

It’s no wonder the Knowledge Graph and Google’s new design across products were the other highlights of the meeting. What stands out most to me is Amit Singhal’s answer during the Q&A when asked for an example of how Hummingbird was an improvement. This, backed up by the post-conference bits Robert Hof was able to get are, to me, the most insightful statements I’ve read so far. I’ll point them out sections of the quotes again:

Q: Examples? Hard to be specific, but essentially, with more complex queries, the algorithm can better understand concepts vs. words as well as relationships between concepts.

 

The more terms people use, Huffman says, the more context Google can divine.

 

Ultimately, he says, “we want to get to a natural conversation” between people and Google search…

 

Just as Caffeine, it sounds to me that Hummingbird is a fundamental change in the way Google Search works, from the inside out. From the statements we have so far, I’m guessing this is a big step for Google towards one of it’s ultimate goals of having its Search or Knowledge Engine become what Amit Singhal has equated to the Star Trek computer. It’s no secret a self-aware Gorg, as it has been joked about on WebmasterWorld, is Google’s aim and, to me at least, these statements hint at a new level, or at least a wider, more complete application, or this new level of machine learning or “artificial intelligence”.

And just as there was a noticeable change in the speed at which pages were indexed and crawled once Caffeine was launched, I imagine we’ll see a noticeable change in the way queries are handled, and thus, even more shakeups to SEO.

Of course, only time will tell so I’ll be listing helpful resources I find on this topic as they come in. Please feel free to send in your own insights if you have something valuable to add:

Hummingbird Resources:

- Official Google Blog Announcement, 9/26/13: http://insidesearch.blogspot.com/2013/09/fifteen-years-onand-were-just-getting.html

- TechCrunch article, 9/26/13 (it’s ok): http://techcrunch.com/2013/09/26/google-recently-made-a-silent-shift-to-a-new-search-algorithm-hummingbird/

- Forbes article, 9/26/13 (longer and much better): http://www.forbes.com/sites/roberthof/2013/09/26/google-just-revamped-search-to-handle-your-long-questions/2/

- SearchEngineLand article, 9/26/13 (Danny Sullivan ads some more info and insights after a follow-up with Amit Singhal and Ben Gomes): http://searchengineland.com/google-hummingbird-172816

- Trevin Shirey’s article “Google goes scraper with Hummingbird update”, showing how more Knowledge Graph included in SERPs means more time on Google properties and less traffic for the website owners that provide the “knowledge”: http://www.trevinshirey.com/google-goes-scraper-with-hummingbird-update/

- Bill Slawski’s 9/27/13 article “The Google Hummingbird Patent?”: http://www.seobythesea.com/2013/09/google-hummingbird-patent/

- A thoughtful (worth reading) article by David Harry, 9/28/13: http://seotrainingdojo.com/Blog/a-search-geeks-thoughts-on-google-hummingbird.html

- I wasn’t going to post this, but it has an intelligent observation (that I happen to agree with) from Moz’s Pete Meyers:

It’s still very early, but Google is suggesting that “Hummingbird” is on the scale of Caffeine and may be a full-scale change to how the algorithm works.The Caffeine connection also implies new infrastructure and capabilities. When Caffeine rolled out, SEOs just heard “techie stuff blah blah blah”, didn’t see an immediate impact, and went on with their lives.

The reality is that Caffeine powered major algo updates for months, including (probably) Panda and Penguin.

Hummingbird could be the building blocks for the next stages of semantic search and the next major algo updates – we could be seeing the impact for months or years.

From one of those usually-boring surveys of today’s hot SEO’s, 9/27/13, by Kate Gramlich Rombous: http://ghergich.com/blog/google-hummingbird/

- Ammon Johns seems to have the right idea about things. 10/9/13: http://www.isoosi.com/blog/hummingbird-the-opposite-of-long-tail-search.html

- Gianluca Fiorelli seems to always have intelligent things to say and, maybe more importantly, is able to communicate those ideas effectively in his writings. His latest article on Moz.com is no exception and gives a lot of great insights regarding the “how” and “why” of Hummingbird. One of my favorites is his numbered breakdown of what Google is now, in theory, able to do. Numbers 3 and 5 are my favorite, “follow the money” explanations that I think he has dead-on. Published 10/24/13: http://moz.com/blog/hummingbird-unleashed

- Another by AJ Kohn – 11/7/13: http://www.blindfiveyearold.com/what-does-the-hummingbird-say

- Enrico Altavilla is a smart guy and “atypical search marketeer”. He usually posts very thoughtful, often very technical stuff and I believe adding one of his first posts on the topic here may be helpful:


If you have anything interesting or original to add, please get a hold of me on Google+.

Author: Chase Billow (more posts)

Chase Billow is the founder and president of Competition Web Marketing in Lake Norman, NC.


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