Google Hummingbird: What is it and what does it mean for you?

Nov 19th, 2013

First we had Panda. Then we got Penguin. Now Google’s announced its latest animal based algorithm update; Hummingbird. So, from an organic search (SEO) perspective rather than a Bill Oddie one, what is Hummingbird and how might it impact on your website?

What is Hummingbird?

Relax- Hummingbird isn’t an overnight game changer, it’s a sign that Google’s users have moved on and Google is moving to better suit their needs.

In August 2013, Google updated a core section of its organic search results algorithm. Initially, it ran this update without any announcement. However on the 26th of September 2013, Google announced that ‘Hummingbird’ had replaced a major part of its algorithm.

Although Google makes about 500+ changes per year, most of them are minor tweaks. Hummingbird, however, is slightly more significant.

Hummingbird is designed to provide answers to long tail searches in a more intuitive way than the original algorithm core could handle.

Over the last three years, with users becoming more demanding in their search queries, the way that people use Google has changed massively.

In 2009, for example, users searched in a different way to how they do nowadays. They used shorter and more generic keywords. These short keywords accounted for about 18% of all the queries Google received and it was these generic keywords that SEO’s originally tried to rank for. They had high search volume and, as a direct result, high value.

However, even in 2009, more specific queries made up the bulk of keywords that drove traffic to websites. But, as they were so specific, their traffic volume was lower and this also meant that competition was lower.

These high value keywords were named “fat head” keywords and the low competition were called “long tail” because of where they appear on the graph below:

Now however, as users have come to expect more and more detail from Google, their searches have become increasingly more specific.

For example, in 2009 a user might have searched for “Red Maxi Dress”. This is a fat head keyword. But in 2013, a user is more likely to search for “Red Maxi Dress, size 10, under £45, Top Shop”. This is a low competition term because it’s so specific, therefore it’s a long tail keyword. As users get higher quality results for their long tail searches, their expectations increase.

Also, with the uptake of voice searches and increase in mobile search, users queries have also taken on more conversational tone. Users are starting to use search terms like “Where can I buy a size 10 maxi dress in red for less than £45?”. These queries push even more traffic towards the long tail end of the graph.

Consequently, Google has rolled out Hummingbird to help the search engine cope better with these type of queries.

What does this mean for your site?

Google’s old engine was great at handling short search queries by breaking them down into keywords. So if given the keywords “Red Maxi Dress”, the old engine would search for the terms ‘Red’, ‘Maxi’ and ‘Dress’ and return results accordingly.

However with a modern search term like “Where can I buy a Red Maxi Dress, under £45, Top Shop” the old engine isn’t designed to be as efficient with the conversational parts of the query.

Hummingbird however, was built to deal with these types of query in a much more efficient way, providing better results for long tail and conversational searches.

This change hasn’t happened overnight. Google has been monitoring the way its users use Google Search over the last few years. In an effort to provide its users with high quality answers to long tail searches, Google has advised people to switch to “content strategies”.

With Google now using its Hummingbird algorithm to answer more complex long tail searches, well planned content marketing strategies will help to drive more traffic to your websites

They have also implemented things like (Not Provided) to try to encourage people to optimise for general terms and not specific fat head keywords.

Content marketing strategies are focused around a user and try to answer a greater volume of long tail queries. Because these type of queries may take any form, it is better to concentrate on figuring out what a visitor to your site would expect to see and providing them with that information.

Ultimately, content strategies are better equipped to drive more traffic from modern long tail searches which are on the increase.

Keywords and keyword strategies aren’t dead. Although the majority of users are moving towards long tail and conversational searches, there are still some users who use fat head keywords for their search terms. However, the long tail vs fat head search volumes are not known because of things like Not Provided count. In general though, long tail drives a higher volume of traffic.

With Google now using its Hummingbird algorithm to answer more complex long tail searches, well planned content marketing strategies will help to drive more traffic to your websites. Fat head keywords, although still valuable, will never drive as much traffic to a site as a well thought out content strategy. Individual keyword positions will become less important than the volume of traffic a website is receiving through long tail searches.

In conclusion

Google have probably been testing Hummingbird for months and SEOs have seen fluctuations, rollouts and rollbacks across the industry, which is the norm.

Unlike Penguin and Panda, we won’t see ranking drops for fat head keywords. We will however see traffic drops and increases as users get improved long tail results and move towards more specific searches over time.

The phrase ‘content is king’ is something of an overused saying in the organic search industry. But with Hummingbird, it has never been a more important philosophy. Producing content that engages your site’s visitors, gives them something of value and, most importantly, solves their problems and questions will ultimately help your site’s organic search performance.

And if you already have creative content marketing strategies, then your site should already be seeing the benefits of Hummingbird’s rollout.

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