Google Hummingbird

Google Hummingbird

What is Hummingbird?

Hummingbird is a new algorithm announced by Google at the end of September, although it had secretly been in effect for a month before this.

The intention of this change is to provide users with more relevant search results by trying to determine their intent, then providing results that match the context of the search.

Hummingbird tries to predict a user’s intent by understanding the relationship and relevance of words and phrases, rather than just treating a search query as a bunch of individual words.

This is a direct attempt to bring “conversational” searches into Google. I.e. instead of typing into a string of keywords into Google’s search box, users can type in questions, which Google will attempt to interpret, and provide the answer directly within the search results.

Common question starters like ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ help match search results based on the context of the questions.

Google have said that Hummingbird is the biggest overhaul to their engine since the 2009 “Caffeine” update (which focussed on speed and integrating social network results into search) but is also the first completely new algorithm Google has implemented since 2001.

Why have Google implemented Hummingbird?

Although these latest changes to Google’s search algorithm have come out of the blue, it’s not entirely unanticipated.

The semantic web (sometimes referred to as web 3.0) has been discussed by online marketers since web 2.0 made such a huge impact on the way the Internet is used.

The purpose behind implementing Hummingbird can be ascribed to:

  1. The anticipated increase of voice searches through mobile devices – akin to Siri on an iPhone, or Google Glasses – where users can ask a direct question rather than utter a string of keywords.
  2. The anticipated increase of “social searches” – similar to Facebook’s Graph Search – where a user can ask social connections for advice and recommendations.
  3. Google’s intention to become an answer machine, not just a provider of links to websites.

What is Hummingbird’s impact on SEO and what do I need to do?

Google has estimated that Hummingbird will affect 90% of all search results, but as of yet, the impact seems to have been minor, and if you haven’t noticed a significant change in your search engine placements, then you probably won’t anytime soon.

However, the lack of impact may be because the majority of websites aren’t yet optimised to take advantage of the update, and the competitive landscape of SEO, this situation is likely to change very quickly.

How to get competitive advantage from Hummingbird?

To ensure you take advantage of the change, I recommend focussing on three core areas:

  1. Semantic data
  2. Conversational search
  3. User intent

Semantic search

Semantic data is a means of tagging the content on your website so that Google can understand its relationship with other data.

Several set of standards (known as schema) are available that allow you to semantically tag content, and have been widely supported and encouraged by Google, but the fruitions of which are only just becoming visible.

How does this apply to your website?

It depends on your industry, and the purpose of your website, but for B2B companies, the more common uses for semantic tags include:

  • Organisational charts so Google understands that the entries listed are employees, with individual job titles, photos, etc.
  • Product data with names, descriptions, manufacturers, dimensions and SKU codes, amongst other attributes.
  • Events with locations and dates.

To make use of semantic data, most companies will an update to the CMS platform that their website is built on.

Although programmers can manually add tags, the need for consistency of tagging coupled with the flexibility for marketers to edit content means that full integration within the CMS is paramount.

Conversational search

Although keyword searches are unlikely to be made completely redundant anytime soon, online marketers needs to understand that conversational searches are likely to become far more commonplace, particularly when taken in conjunction with an increasingly mobile audience.

How does this apply to your website?

This will mean longer, less precise phrases, and so will need a shift of focus when creating web content – from ‘short tail” keywords to “long tail” keywords, and keyword variations within a theme.

User intent

User intent is what brings the above two together. It is even more important than ever to:

  1. Define your target audience
  2. Map out their needs based on what stage of the sales cycle they currently occupy
  3. Match these needs to the content you provide, tailoring messages to match their information requirements
  4. Provide clear and guided steps to rive them to the next stage of the cycle   

How does this apply to your website?

For many industries, for example semiconductor companies, the supply chain is a long and complex process, but an overly simplified version of the process can be outlined as:

  1. For those at the start of the funnel, informational searches are paramount. “How do I…” questions can be answered in blog posts, infographics and videos. These searches are likely to be longtail in nature, and need multiple variations of similar content using various media. To capture the diverse variety of searches, companies need to become publishers, not worry about overlapping content, and distribute the content through the diverse channels that are now available online. 
  2. Once initial questions have been answered, visitors can be driven to more in-depth knowledge available in whitepapers, technical articles and webinars, generating leads through the use of data capture forms, and the ability to both define the quality of leads, and provide sales teams with qualified prospects.
  3. At the bottom of the funnel, low margin, high volume sales can be achieved by targeting questions such as “where can I buy…” by semantically marked up product data and geographic data.


Hummingbird is a big deal. Its full implications have yet to be realised, but smart marketers that recognise and take the opportunity to take advantage of these changes will have the competitive advantage as the web transitions into its new phase.