Google’s Hummingbird Update: What Does It Mean For SEO?

Robbie Richards
December 2, 2013

If content is king, then context is queen.

A few months ago, Google rolled out its biggest algorithm update since Caffeine. They code-named it ‘Hummingbird’. While the Caffeine update was designed to improve the crawling and indexing of web content, the hummingbird update was built to accommodate increasingly complex user search queries.

Hummingbird hatched from two specific behavioral elements:

  1. Mobile technology
  2. User intent

The Hummingbird is Google’s attempt to deliver the most relevant, high quality search results that accommodate these elements. Let me explain.

Mobile Technology

Mobile technology is revolutionizing search. Today, 60% of local search is conducted on a mobile device. A large portion of this search is now voice-generated. This shift in user behavior has facilitated more complex (long-tail) search queries. Google loves this because the more complex the query, the more context Google receives. This added context, coupled with Google’s knowledge graph has allowed the search giant to transition more towards a natural conversational search model.

“People communicate with each other by conversation, not by typing keywords — and we’ve been hard at work to make Google understand and answer your questions more like people do.” – Google’s Amit Singhal

The rise in voice-generated (conversational) mobile search has driven Google’s new hummingbird algorithm to place more weight on mobile web design optimization. Although Google hasn’t explicitly stated they will penalize sites that do not have a responsive website, they have mentioned that they will rank a site higher in mobile search results if it is responsive. This is critical for sites receiving a large amount of mobile traffic, especially small local businesses. Additionally, having a responsive website will improve usability for mobile users. Behavioral signals such as time on site, bounce rate and page views tell Google how relevant, or useful a site is for a given search query. For example, if someone browsing on their mobile device visits a website only to be taken to a non-responsive webpage (one that doesn’t open on their mobile device) they are likely to bounce back to the search results page. This bounce is a behavioral signal that informs Google that the website is not relevant or useful, hurting a site’s SEO efforts (particularly local). As you can see, have a responsive or dedicated mobile website is crucial for SEO. Make sure your site is responsive and contains quality content that serves your target audience’s needs. This will increase site engagement, signaling to Google that your site is relevant site.

User Intent

Today, internet users have an insatiable need for fresh quality content. Further, users are typing increasingly complex search queries to meet their information needs. For example, a person may type “buy Titleist driver Boise” in Google on their desktop. On the other hand, they might say a verbal command on their smartphone device such as, “What places can I buy a Titleist D4 driver in Boise”? Pre-Hummingbird, a traditional search engine would attempt to find matches for keywords in its index, and then pull all the pages that contain the words “buy” and “Titleist D4” and “driver” “in Boise” in close proximity. Inevitably many unrelated, low quality results surfaced.

Post-hummingbird (and knowledge graph), Google is trying to understand the meaning behind search queries; the user intent. As Google stated, they are focusing on “things not strings”- the rise of semantic search.

Referring back to the example above, Hummingbird and the knowledge graph would allow Google to better understand the specific location in which you are searching from, the ‘place’ refers to a brick and mortar store. From a user’s prior browsing history and preferences Google will likely understand that a ‘Titleist D4 driver’ is a golf product carried by specific stores in your area. Knowing all the semantic meaning behind this search allows Google to go beyond simple keyword matches, and return the most relevant (in this case personalized) search results for users.

What does the Hummingbird update mean to your SEO efforts?

Many SEO’s and webmasters are now asking the question, do I need to change my SEO strategy to accommodate Google’s new Hummingbird update? Well, that depends. If you’ve been staying up to date with current SEO best practices, it will probably be business as usual. However, with Google’s recent move towards encrypting keyword data, we can infer that SEO strategies are less reliant on keyword optimization (although it is still an important piece to the puzzle).

Google uses over 200 ranking factors in its search algorithm. With the launch of Hummingbird, the importance of some of these factors have shifted. Below I have included a list of some of the ranking factors that will be increasingly important as we move into the post-Hummingbird world of search.

Mobile SEO: This is huge. Conversational search is driven by the way people interact (voice generated) with their mobile devices. So, having a responsive or dedicated mobile site is going to be important, especially for ranking highly in mobile search results.

Semantic Markup: Implementing and Open Graph structured data markup on your website helps the search engines understand on-page content. Structured data can also improve click-through rates within the SERPs when displayed in the rich snippets.

Social Media: Google is now placing heavier weighting on social signals (likes, comments, shares, RT’s, mentions and +1’s) as an indicator of content quality and relevance, as well as brand authority. SEOs need to implement an integrated social media strategy centered on building audiences, influencer engagement and content amplification. Today, Google Plus is one of the most important social channels, especially within local search results as much of the local listing information (name, phone, address, reviews etc) in the SERPs is pulled from Google Local business listings.

Authorship/ Publisher Markup: This structured data is proven to increase click-through rates by 15-30% within the SERPs. Implementing this markup will display a company’s brand logo, or an individual’s Google Plus profile next to their content in the SERPs. This rich data adds credibility to search results, and increases brand visibility.

Links: Backlink strategies have been at center of much debate within the SEO community of late. Google’s Penguin algorithm was launched to penalize sites engaging in black hat linking schemes. Many sites have been penalized or de-indexed as a result of this algorithm update. However, despite the controversy, links are still a huge part of SEO. Google views backlinks as votes. If a site links to your website it is seen as a vote that your site is relevant and credible for certain types of content. However, many webmasters use black hat linking schemes that include tactics such as low quality article submissions, paid links in PR releases, site wide linking, sponsored links to name a few. The Penguin sees such links as manipulative and will penalize accordingly.

Webmasters need to make sure they are engaging in natural link schemes by publishing content in a variety of formats (blog, video, podcasts, infographics ) and amplifying this content across a variety of digital channels. Also, make sure all backlinks are coming from relevant sources with credible page and domain authority. This will ensure positive Page Rank is passed to your site. Ensure backlink anchor text contains a natural mix of both branded and non-branded keywords.

Also, ensure that you are incorporating a consistent internal linking strategy. Internal anchor text needs to be optimized with relevant keywords. This will help pass Page Rank across your entire site and indicate to Google which pages are most relevant for a given keyword or search phrase.

Blog: Having a blog is crucial for any site. Creating quality content that answers very specific questions about your product or service is a great way to educate and build credibility within an industry. Further, bloggers should make sure content provides value and is structured in a way that it will capture long-tail traffic. Make sure blog content contains author or publisher markup for added branding and credibility. Amplify content across social properties in order to build social signals and generate targeted inbound traffic. Tip: publishing blog content on Google Plus will get that content indexed immediately and provide instant visibility in the search engines. Regularly updating your blog will help increase how often your site gets re-indexed by Google as well.

Keywords: They are not dead. Although Google is moving away from a tactical keyword approach to SEO, making sure that content contains a healthy mix of relevant keywords within the appropriate title, header and body tags will help Google understand your on-page content better.

When optimizing on-page meta tags (title, h1, h2 and alt text) make sure you are using related keywords. You do not want to have the same keywords placed in the meta tags on every page. This is known as keyword cannibalization and will confuse Google as to which pages are most relevant for given keywords.


I’d like to finish with a saying from Jim Yu, the founder and CEO of BrightEdge.

Old SEO: How do I rank for this query?

New SEO: How do I best answer the questions my users have?

In a post-Hummingbird world many of the same SEO best practices still apply. However, we all need to move from a tactical approach centered on ranking for certain keywords towards an integrated digital strategy focused on delivery an exceptional user experience. This begins with mobile. Remember, people before search engines.

By Robbie Richards.