What is Google Hummingbird?

Haley Carroll

  | Published on  

September 29, 2023

Throughout its 23 year history, Google has made countless updates to how its search engine works, all in an effort to create a better experience for its users. That’s how the Internet giant has remained at the top of its industry for so long: by constantly improving itself.

Many of these major updates have quirky names associated with them, such as Fred, RankBrain, Panda, or Penguin. Don’t let the cute names fool you — Google means serious business when it releases an update.

Whenever a new update is announced, the aftershocks can be felt throughout the SEO community. The sometimes incremental, sometimes more dramatic changes Google makes to its algorithm can have huge repercussions on site rankings on the SERP (or sometimes very little effect).

Diligent webmasters like to stay in the know and up to date on Google’s latest algorithm launches, in order to be proactive in their SEO strategies and tailor their sites to fit the search engine’s latest rules and preferences.

Understanding how Google’s search engine operates and staying current with its latest updates is how you can gain a competitive edge over rival websites. If your competition isn’t aware of how Google is changing, their SEO strategies will become outdated and less effective.

A major component to understanding how Google functions today is being knowledgeable about the important updates the search engine has undergone in the past. This gives you context when learning about current SEO best practices.

What is Google Hummingbird?

One of the most significant updates from Google was officially announced on September 26, 2013 (although it had started going into effect the month before) and it was called Google Hummingbird.

Even though Hummingbird is referred to as an “update,” it was actually more of an overhaul of Google’s entire search algorithm. That large shift is what we will be investigating today.

How does Google Hummingbird work?

If the focus of Google Hummingbird had to be boiled down into two words, those words would be search intent. Search intent is the “why” behind the words or phrases users are typing into the search bar. It is the reason people are using a search engine in the first place.

Users have a different search intent for every query they make. The four core kinds of search intent are: informational, navigational, transactional, and commercial investigation. But it’s important to remember that search intent is much more nuanced than that.

For example, if someone types “lawn mowers” into Google, their intent is most likely to find and purchase a lawn mower online. However, if someone enters “John Mayer” into the search bar, their intent is probably to find information about the artist such as a biography and a list of his music.

While a user’s search intent may seem straightforward and obvious to other humans, computers have a much more difficult time discerning it. Understanding how humans use words to convey very specific meanings is called natural language processing, and it is the key to a more effective search engine.

Before Google Hummingbird went into effect, the SERP looked much different. Google relied on keywords alone to dictate which websites it would display at the top. Even if the site did not match the user’s search intent, it would be displayed if it contained the same keywords as the search query.

In order to solve this issue, Google needed to incorporate semantic search into its algorithm. This means taking into account the context of a user’s search query when finding results to display. Semantic search tries to understand what the user really means, instead of just relying on keywords to inform the SERP.

The update also began to use synonyms and theme-related topics to inform its search results, in case the searcher’s knowledge on a certain subject was lacking. This way, even if you don’t exactly know what you’re looking for or how to find it, Google is more likely to be able to help you get there anyway.

With the addition of semantic search and the knowledge graph, if a user types the word “target” into Google, they are given many different results for what that query could have meant. Take a look here:

You can see that this search leads to the company website for Target, relevant background information about the Target corporation, and also shows Target store locations that are closest to you.

The background information is displayed in the box on the right hand side, known as the knowledge graph. It contains a variety of resources that users may want to perform a quick search for, such as the customer service phone number and links to Target’s social media profiles.

However, if you weren’t trying to access information about the popular retailer, a single word added to the query returns completely different results. For example, the query “shooting target” will product this SERP:

This search shows images of shooting targets, options to buy a shooting target, as well as gun ranges close to the user’s location. Since Google isn’t a mind reader, it typically provides a range of results to increase the likelihood of giving a user the information they want.

Prior to the knowledge graph, the SERP only contained links to other webpages, and so users would have to take additional steps in order to find what they needed. The introduction of the knowledge graph eliminated the need to follow a link in many cases, where a simple answer could be displayed in the blink of an eye by Google itself.  

Google will completely modify what the knowledge graph and SERP displays depending on the search intent of the user, drastically reducing the amount of effort a user needs to exert in order to find what they need.

How does Google Hummingbird affect SEO?

The fact that the knowledge graph enables users to access information without leaving the SERP angered some website owners. This meant that even if a website is ranking in the number one spot, users no longer have to actually visit that site to find the information they need — instead, it’s readily available in the knowledge graph, without having to click anywhere.  

However, the Hummingbird update did not have the drastic effect on site rankings that some people assume it had. What Hummingbird did change dramatically was the user experience, and it changed for the better.

The basic SEO strategies for top-ranking content before Hummingbird still remained effective after the update came out. One of the golden rules of SEO remains true for both pre- and post-Hummingbird: Create unique, valuable content that users will find useful and enjoyable in the form that is most suitable for the given topic.

This means offering helpful, in-depth information to users, while also remaining engaging and easy to understand by delivering the information in the best way possible. This may mean a list, a how-to guide, a video, or something else.

Adding visuals to your content is also a great way to increase engagement and offer information in an easily digestible format. . The same goes for using language that is appropriate to the audience you’re writing for and the topic you’re discussing. You should always do your best to write in your own voice, making sure to also keep this appropriate given the context of your content.  

Hummingbird also highlighted the importance of another golden rule of SEO: You can’t rely on keywords alone to get your site to rank!

Does Google still use Hummingbird?

The Hummingbird update and its incorporation of semantics into the Google algorithm will only continue to be improved upon in the future. Natural language processing has become a huge focus of Google and other tech companies, as humans continuously try to get their machines to understand them more easily and accurately.

After all, the world could always benefit from a little bit more understanding, right?

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