Google’s Hummingbird – and what it means to you

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I’m sure since the announcement of Google’s new search algorithm Hummingbird (not an update such as penguin or panda) last weekend it is something you have heard about or already been talking about by the water cooler.

Myself and Isreal along with the Online Republic team have spent a lot of time discussing and researching to understand what it is, what it means and started to identify how it may (or has already in some cases) affected search results for both Online Republic and Search Republic’s clients.

Although it was only announced a few days ago the actual rollout of the new algorithm happened 6 weeks ago and the impact can already be seen in Google’s search results – when it decides on what pages to display.


So what is Hummingbird and why has it been introduced by Google?

Basically Google is cognisant of the fact that search habits are changing and they are ensuring their on-going relevance for today and the future. Everyone has been talking about the ‘semantic web’ for a few years now – but we haven’t really seen it in action. We have been stuck in a key word era – where Google has indexed and ranked search results based on keywords in a search. Often it is the strong brands that ‘own’ a keyword and rank well for it.

We’ve all been changing the way we search, we now search by intent and not by keyword, plus with the advent of Apple’s Siri and Google voice search we are also using conversational based search. A lot different to the one or two keyword searches we used in the past.

Hummingbird understands ‘user intent’; Google is predicting how we think and provides the answer it thinks we are looking for. Sounds a bit 1984ish but it’s a big shift to help get us the right results on the first search.

It also appears to be an attempt to prolong the user experience on the SERP (search results page) and serve up more content so the user doesn’t need to click through, eg knowledge graph:

Google's Hummingbird - SERP




Google's Hummingbird - SERP2


Hummingbird also means that pages that match the intent of a user’s search will rank higher in the SERPs than just matching one or two keywords.  Ie Google will be looking at every word in the search query to understand the intent.


A good example of how this change has already influenced search results is shown below:

Search term used: “pay your bills through citizens bank and trust bank”

Pre-hummingbird result – Top result used to display the Citizens Bank homepage

Citizen Bank Hummingbird example


Hummingbird resultNow displays the specific Citizens Bank page about paying bills

Citizen Bank Hummingbird example2


Hummingbird will more greatly consider question words like “how” “why”, “where” and “when” in search phrases, in addition to content keywords. Hence Hummingbird moves the emphasis of search from “results” to “answers”.

So producing content such as on Youtube that can go on the site, such as “How to buy a first home” or “best shoes for pronating feet”, is even more important with Hummingbird.

Semantic search has been around since 2012 through a company called WolframAlpha, which Apple uses for Siri – so this is also a competitive move by Google.

Hummingbird also focuses on “conversational search” or “hot wording” as Google calls it. It is our future – let’s fast track 3 years (maybe 18 months) you’re sitting in café with friends talking about Team NZ’s efforts back in 2013 and how we clutched defeat from the jaws of victory, but no one can remember which race we number was cancelled due to going over time. You are all wearing your Google glasses and you just need to say “OK Google Americans cup 2013 which race was cancelled due to going over time”, you’ll get either a verbal response, a text answer on your lens or a video of that race on your lens.  (Will be even trickier for Key and Banks to have a quiet cuppa).


This semantic move by Google isn’t something that is a surprise – it was more around when it would come. It also isn’t something to panic about.  It is STILL about producing high quality content and when possible including as much as possible, content that is highly informative and includes keyword variations that visitors are likely to use in their query string.

Overall it is a positive move by Google for user experience and everyone should win.


Brad has spent many years working on client side, developing digital strategies and managing teams to implement those strategies. He understands the challenges and priorities from an online marketer’s perspective ­ the high targets, tight budgets and the education required to gain internal buy ­in to digital strategies. He also likes riding his Mt bike and telling stories about all the mountains he has climbed before becoming a Dad.

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