The Definitive Guide to Almost Everything You Want to Know about Google’s Hummingbird Search Algorithm

The Definitive Guide to Almost Everything You Want to Know about Google’s Hummingbird Search Algorithm
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15 years on and Google is still going strong. Recently in October, the search engine mogul celebrated its 15th anniversary not only with the usual cake and champagne; it also gave Internet users a gift in the form of its latest Hummingbird search algorithm. Here is an FAQ that should satisfy your curiosity for all things Hummingbird.

Hummingbird: the beginning

1. How did Hummingbird begin?

It is said that the new search algorithm was implemented a few months before October but was only officially announced at Google’s star-studded event marking the search giant’s 15-year anniversary.

2. What about the prior Panda and Penguin updates? Is Hummingbird the new version?

Not at all. Google first released the Caffeine update (incidentally, we should note that Caffeine is an infrastructural change, not an algorithmic one) in June 2010, and along the way, patches such as Panda and Penguin were released before Hummingbird. In other words, these patches whose names were borrowed from cuddly, black-and-white creatures were meant to “fix” setbacks caused by Caffeine. Hummingbird is seen as the official release of a totally new search algorithm altogether.

3. How different is Hummingbird from Caffeine?

Caffeine was created as a means to optimize the indexation of billions upon billions of web documents that the search engine crawls so that users may experience better results that hit home more accurately. And while Hummingbird may also be considered an infrastructural change introduced by Google, it wasn’t really created to do a better job than Caffeine – it was implemented to do a DIFFERENT job altogether. Rather than improve on the indexation process, Hummingbird’s objective is to analyze users’ intent, translating their purpose after they hit the SEARCH (or ENTER) button and ultimately, present the most relevant results.

In Google’s own words: ““Hummingbird is focused more on ranking information based on a more intelligent understanding of search requests, unlike its predecessor, Caffeine, which was targeted at better indexing of websites.” 

Hummingbird: the workings and process

1. Why was Hummingbird conceived?

There are two major reasons that led to the birth of Hummingbird:

  1. Users are now more comfortable asking complex questions albeit in a conversational tone when typing in queries. Instead of “best Thai restaurant Chicago”, users are leaning towards asking questions like “Where can I find Thai food like Tom Yum Goong near my home?” To address this growing trend, Hummingbird “translates” the verbose queries and turn them into simple phrases that the search engine is able to understand, thus delivering results that solves users’ needs.
  2. With more than 50% Internet users belonging to the mobile-only segmentation, it makes complete sense to cater to the needs of the growing masses that are performing searches on their mobile devices rather than on their desktops. This is due to the awkwardness born out of using the mobile keyboard (and let’s not even talks about embarrassing predictive text results). Over time, people will lean more towards voice search, and this is a trend Google is looking to capitalize.

2. How does Hummingbird works?

Conversational search, or in Amit Singhal’s own words, “verbose searches” is THE catchphrase to watch out for when it comes to understanding the workings of Google’s Hummingbird.

This scenario should help you better understand what Hummingbird can do: you’re driving around in New York City when your stomach rumbles. You whip out your smartphone and ask Google “Where can I get good Chinese food here?” In the past, Google might not understand “where” and “here” in the context of your query, but now, it is intelligent enough to pull your current location from your device and shorten your verbose phrasing that mirrors the search query “Good Chinese food in New York”, thus process your search efficiently and accurately.

3. Google confirms that Hummingbird is affecting 90% searches so far. What does it mean to us?

This new Google buzzword shouldn’t be cause for concern at all. In fact, if most people cared to read the official release, they would realize that the update affects 90% searches and NOT search results. This misunderstanding has caused quite a furor on the Internet, but otherwise you won’t be able to see tangible changes to search engine results or even 90% loss of traffic. Like we mentioned before, Hummingbird’s job is to use its intelligence and process search engine users’ queries optimally, so that it would know how to react to them.

Once again, the search queries, or search phrasing, are the ones that will be affected by the update, NOT the results themselves.

4. What are the apparent changes we can SEE in terms of web results?

Even though Google has confirmed that SEOs and publishers need not worry about the new update “penalizing” them, search engine users on the other hand, have more reasons to rejoice. Google is now more tuned in to the way queries are made i.e. in a verbose “real conversation” manner, and have made changes to the way the search engine processes these queries.

If you want a taste of the subtle changes that can be detected, check out this example below:


As you can see, when “best chinese food nyc” is typed, a host of results are returned. Next, when I type “where can I eat the best chinese food in nyc”, again, I am overwhelmed by a ton of results inviting me to taste the choicest morsels that Chinese chefs in New York has to offer. However, upon closer inspection, I realized that Google has delivered quite a different set of results to my query “where can I eat the best chinese food in nyc”. I noticed that some delivery-only options were left out, which makes perfect sense because I asked WHERE I can eat Chinese food. Google obviously understands my intention to have my meal in a restaurant, not at home, having left out the delivery-only options.

This is pretty much what we can expect from Google’s newly improved search engine functions. It understands real conversation and has an in-depth perception of humanized meanings.

Hummingbird: should we be panicking yet?

1. Will Hummingbird affect long-tail search?

Not really. You’re digging in the wrong hole if you think that your long-tail rankings would be affected by this latest update. Hummingbird is all about queries, quite the opposite of long-tail results. According to Ammon Johns, Hummingbird takes all long-tail searches that would sound as if uttered (or asked) in a conversational manner and delivers results by applying semantics to them. In other words, Hummingbird analyzes the search query and no matter how “conversational” or verbose it gets, the search engine is able to return optimized results.

2. Will Hummingbird mark the end of SEO?

Absolutely not! Google itself is the biggest Search Engine Optimizer there is, and it is not about to stop other SEO efforts from improving its search engine. SEOs or web owners need not panic or tweak their sites to death just yet. Google assures that nothing has changed – you just need to do what you’ve been doing before, and that is to publish high quality content that your readers will find valuable.

3. Why is my traffic dwindling?

Many things can happen when a new search engine algorithm is implemented, but Google’s actions this time seem a little “passive” in terms of meting out “punishments”. Compared to the heydays of Panda and Penguin, few webmasters are screaming blue murder when Hummingbird was unleashed. If you are seeing a decrease of traffic, it may or may NOT be due to the new update. Plus, it’s said that the update was dished out a couple of months ago, so if you did not experience drastic decline in traffic, chances are it isn’t Hummingbird that’s come to haunt you.

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Nikhil Jain

Founder and CEO at Ziondia
Hi there, I'm Nikhil and I enjoy writing articles about SEO, Social Media or anything about Internet/Online Marketing. I am really passionate about everything that revolves around Internet and have been into this industry since 10 years now.

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