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Google Hummingbird Explained

22 OCT
Google Hummingbird

Google announced possibly the biggest change in how it searches and indexes websites at the end of last month.

The announcement was timed to coincide with their 15th anniversary and aims to keep the company at the forefront of search technology. The name of this update is Hummingbird, maintaining a recent trend in naming important updates after animals (viz Panda, Penguin).

Over their 15 year history Google have constantly evolved their search algorithms in order to provide relevant results to searchers and to keep one step ahead of those who like to game (or spam) the search engine by attempting to artificially manipulate results.

Such updates are for the most part minor in terms of impact (but not necessarily so in terms of infrastructure or lines of code!) and often go unnoticed, but occasionally a seismic change is made which has the inevitable effect of upsetting a proportion of website owners as Google’s index changes significantly.

It is worth remembering however, that for every webmaster decrying their sudden drop in rankings, there will be another who has benefitted from the new update (and you probably won’t hear from him in the various forums). This underlines an important point that website owners often forget: Google is targeting the typical user with these updates, not webmasters, site owners or content publishers.

Why the change?

Google wants to make the search experience better for the vast majority of its users, most of whom will not notice any significant change, other than perhaps a cool new feature or just better results. Google wants to offer fresher, more relevant results to its users and keep ahead of rival search providers (Bing, Yahoo, Baidu in China and Yandex in Russia, for example), as well as the newly emergent social providers such as Twitter and Facebook.

Recent Google updates have removed poor quality sites from the index (Panda) and penalised sites that appear to have used artificial methods to rank well (Penguin). This latest update represents, according to Google, a significant change in how sites are crawled, indexed and ranked in response to searches. Surprisingly though, it appears to have caused much less ‘flux’ in the visible index and there are remarkably few reports of webmasters whose online rankings have been affected.

What has changed?

So, what has changed exactly? Well we can never know for certain as Google clearly will not give away the secret sauce. What we do have is the information Google have given us and the collective experience of the webmaster community, which points to a number of interesting developments.

The Knowledge Graph

Google has long been a master of collecting and regurgitating information based on its patented pagerank formula. Whilst this has been effective up to now, the search engine wants to go further and try to understand the associated concepts behind a query and the context within which it exists.

Google refers to this as its Knowledge Graph. You can see this in action when you search for a person, or place for example. Brief bios or summaries will appear on the right hand side of the search results, along with maps, images and associated people, images or related searches.

Direct Answers & Mobile

As mobile use increases, Google’s user base is shifting from primarily desktop to a combination of desktop, smartphone, tablet and laptop. Google has identified what it believes are different behaviours and different expectations of users using smartphones to those using a desktop or laptop. Typed searches on a mobile tend to be shorter and more of a direct question or location related query. Google believes it can now answer a lot of these questions directly.

So for certain questions (e.g. “What is the height of the Eiffel Tower?” or “How far is Paris from Lyon”) a user will now see a direct answer on Google’s page without the need to navigate to one of the results. For a long time Google has answered maths or conversion (weights, currencies) queries like this, now they are expanding these direct answers to those “pub quiz” style queries where there is usually one correct answer.

Voice Search & Mobile

Mobile users may also use voice search. Voice search queries tend to be a bit longer and more conversational. It is particularly these where Google wants to get a sense of the concept and context. With a query such as “Show me pet shops near here”  Google understands that you are most likely out and about, can pinpoint your position and can use its mapping technology in combination with its local data to return you a list of nearby businesses, as opposed to perhaps a list of articles that reference the phrase ‘pet shops’.

Futureproofing?

So whilst Hummingbird is probably the largest change to the Google search algorithm in its 15 year history, in reality not very many users will actually notice. And that is as it should be.

If you are a website owner you may have noticed fluctuations in your traffic. But then you always will. Google releases numerous updates and makes hundreds of minor tweaks month in and month out. There is no completely reliable way to safeguard against ranking drops and therefore traffic loss.

You can (and should) attempt to diversify your traffic sources so that Google is not bringing in the lion’s share of your site traffic. PPC, display advertising, email marketing, brand building, offline advertising, social media, traditional PR - these all help to raise your profile and deliver traffic outside of the Google ecosystem. But for many sites these streams will never approach the numbers delivered by healthy organic Google rankings. Why? Because, quite simply, everyone uses Google to find stuff.

All the usual optimisation advice focuses on creating oodles of fresh content, getting links from industry relevant sites and being active on various social platforms. That’s all still (boringly) valid advice.

Semantic Markup

One key addition to that advice -  in the wake of Hummingbird - would be to implement semantic markup on your site (if you have not already done so).

Semantic markup is being used by search engines to help them classify pages and sites according to a received schema - thus facilitating the growth of the Knowledge Graph. Adding semantic markup to your site is an immediately actionable step (and not hugely painful to implement). You might also want to consider authorship markup in conjunction with Google+ if your site content is informational or vaguely journalistic in nature.

Google is the only game in town when it comes to organic search traffic. And that looks unlikely to change in the near future. So if you want to survive or even prosper you need to understand what Google’s rules and expectations are and how they periodically change.

Further reading