hummingbird cartoon

There’s something different about Google, but it isn’t something obvious – it’s happening behind the scenes. You may not have even noticed Google’s new search algorithm, Google Hummingbird, but it’s affecting 90% of all Google searches. So what is it, and what does it do?

Named for its precision and speed, Hummingbird represents a big change in Google’s approach to search. In previous updates, Google focused on improving their indexing; next they concentrated on identifying spam. With Hummingbird, Google is trying to improve the other side of the search. They’re trying to get better at listening – at finding out what users want to know.

Hummingbird was designed to understand “conversational” queries. This means it’s trying to understand the meaning behind phrases, rather than searching for individual keywords within a phrase. In the past, the query “where is the nearest ice cream shop” might have thrown off your search – Google might’ve tried to find an ice cream shop called Where is the Nearest Ice Cream. Now, Hummingbird recognizes that “where is” is part of a speech pattern (instead of a term that needs to be searched), and that “nearest” relates to my geographic location. Because I’ve allowed Chrome to know my computer’s location, it presents me with a list of local ice cream shops – with ratings.

nearest ice cream shop

By recognizing “conversational” queries, Google is paving the way for more voice searches, which are becoming more common. If you’re using Chrome, you may have noticed the little microphone icon on Google’s homepage. Click on it, and you’re invited to speak your search query aloud.

google speak now

At this point, most of us have learned to use keywords in typed searches, but speaking in keywords is another story. As voice searches become more common, Google’s ability to parse a whole phrase’s meaning, rather than just individual words, will become more important.

Google is also aiming to answer audience questions through their Knowledge Graph whenever possible, rather than redirecting searchers to another page. Searches for movie show times, measurement or currency translations, and word definitions already returned answers on Google’s site. With the Hummingbird update, Google is supplying some comparison charts directly on their page.

blueberry vs raspberry

This might seem like bad news for your website, but it’s also a good measurement of your content’s value. Google says that Hummingbird won’t reduce traffic to your website.

So What Does This Mean for Marketers?

Hummingbird represents a shift in focus for Google – from building strength to building stealth. In short, Google is getting smarter. This means techniques like keywords stuffing, which have effectively “gamed” Google’s results in the past, will become increasingly less effective.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to marketers. Google has announced a string of updates in the last few years, each one altering the best practices for SEO. In late September, Google made all organic searches secure, meaning that keyword data for visitors to your website was no longer available, changing the SEO efforts of many companies. Google also announced that PageRank (their algorithm for ranking websites in search) won’t be updated this year, and many marketers expect PageRank to disappear altogether.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t worry about page rankings, or that you shouldn’t bother to optimize for key phrases. But given the frequent changes to Google’s algorithms, optimizing for search shouldn’t be your only concern.

So where else should marketers focus their energies? In the same place you’ve (hopefully) been focusing your energies already: on relevant, high-quality content. Smart content marketing is one of the best ways to nurture relationships with your prospects and customers, but it requires a whole mix of techniques. Optimization is vital to that mix, but so is the constant creation of valuable materials. You need to drive traffic to your site, but you also need to keep your audience on the page.

If you’re continuously creating the kind of content your audience is looking for, the new algorithm will help them find you. That’s why Hummingbird is a win for your customers, and ultimately a win for you.