How Google’s Hummingbird algorithm changed SEO

What was Google's Hummingbird Update?
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Last updated: November 2023

The ‘Hummingbird’ update was officially announced on Google’s 15th birthday (26 September 2013), although it had actually been released some weeks earlier. At the time, Search Engine Land stated the algorithmic overhaul aimed to make search results more “precise and fast”, mirroring the movements of the eponymous bird.

While Google regularly tweaks the way it indexes, ranks and displays search results, as evidenced by the Panda update in 2011 and Penguin update in 2012, Hummingbird was said to be the most substantial change in over a decade. Essentially, previous updates were ‘patches’ tagged onto the core algorithm, but the mechanics have now been completely refreshed to incorporate all modifications into one sleek system.

Thus, Hummingbird effectively regulates the 200 or so ranking factors that determine what makes it to the top of the SERPs, Panda and Penguin included. So whilst there are multiple ranking factor algorithms, there is only one core search engine algorithm and this is now named Hummingbird.

Nevertheless, the most notable development upon its introduction was a serious refinement to conversational search, or, as it’s often referred to, semantic search. This is the major talking point when people discuss Hummingbird, so this guide will outline everything you need to know to ensure your site becomes fluent in semantic SEO.

How Google Hummingbird works

The aim of the game for Google is to truly understand searcher intent, ensuring it returns only the most useful resources on page one. However, as the rise of smart devices empowered voice search, it became necessary to adapt to subtle differences in searcher behaviour, looking at the context of each word as part of the search query as a whole rather than their literal meanings as standalone words.

For instance, if someone were to search for “What’s the best place to eat sushi in Bristol?”, Google would understand that by relating “place” and “to eat” people are likely to mean “restaurants” and it understands that “sushi” is semantically related to Japanese food, so will accordingly list top rated Japanese restaurants within Bristol instead of other places to eat and points of interest like Clifton suspension bridge and the Harbourside. Pretty amazing when you think about the complexity of this task.

When typing a search query, we might write “content marketing agency Bristol”, but when conducting a voice search we’re more likely to say something along the lines of, “What’s the best content marketing agency in Bristol?”, or “Which company in Bristol offers the best content marketing and SEO services?”.

As you can see, voice searches tend to be much longer-tail conversational search queries, so you should take this into account when creating content for your website. Hummingbird aims to pinpoint the meaning or intent behind long-tail searches, and to an extent you can increase your chances of performing well in the SERPs by executing detailed keyword research and naturally weaving long-tail variations of target phrases into your copy.

Needless to say, however, being keyword-savvy isn’t nearly enough to outrank competitors, and the only way to really usurp them in the SERPs is to produce quality content that provides detailed answers to real world questions. Being mindful of keyword placement will help to a degree, but Hummingbird is far more concerned with returning results that actually solve queries and meet the searcher’s intent, so it shouldn’t be your sole focus.

In fact, those most adversely affected by Hummingbird (and Panda before) were sites containing lots of keyword-rich pages, but where the content itself was relatively poor. The real keyword to have in mind is ‘quality’, and you should always aim to make your webpages the very best, highest-quality resource of their kind.

To help optimise your efforts, check out our posts on:

It’s all semantics

Google is constantly evolving and getting increasingly sophisticated at rewarding websites that produce genuinely valuable content with higher rankings. The fact that Hummingbird now considers semantics, i.e. content that doesn’t necessarily match the exact search query but is still very closely related, means that those producing great content have increased their likelihood of appearing in the search results.

SEO expert, Rand Fishkin, discusses this evolution in a Whiteboard Friday video:

Ultimately, Hummingbird means you can do more with less.

Its introduction was a huge milestone in Internet history, which has changed the way many people think about content marketing. In days gone by, there was a certain “if we blog it, they will come” attitude, with the “content is king” rhetoric echoing throughout marketing circles. This led to a certain emphasis on quantity over quality.

However, while content may still be king, context is most certainly queen, and as every chess player knows, the queen is your most powerful piece. Thus, if you truly want to reign supreme in organic search, it’s essential to research blog posts fully to ensure you create an authoritative resource that naturally ranks for a variety of related queries.

Many commentators believe we’ve hit a content saturation point, whereby the majority of output goes unnoticed by the wider web, collecting digital dust as it fails to cut through. Indeed, we’ve previously written about a need to go niche to avoid a content marketing crisis. (Niche in terms of providing detail instead of writing something that doesn’t really add anything meaningful.)

At the end of the day, it’s no longer possible to succeed with keyword-optimised 500-word blog posts that add very little value to the wider conversation. The only way to make an impression is to create insightful content that people naturally share and link to, extending your reach and boosting your SEO in the background.

Provided you also pay close attention to onsite optimisation best practices, your content will shoot up the rankings and get noticed by more people. There’s no way of hacking Hummingbird, per se, it’s all about a consistent approach to your online presence.

With semantic search increasingly prominent, it makes sense to vary your wording, but this shouldn’t distract from writing naturally. We often have open while writing articles, but this is more a case of avoiding repetition to make things flow rather than trying to incorporate every possible synonym that searchers may enter into long-tail phrases. Google’s Hummingbird engine is clever enough to make these connections for you.

If your business relies heavily on local trade, you should also read our guides to Pigeon and Possum to ensure you’re well-versed in local SEO.

Additionally, we offer no obligation content audits and digital health checks, completely free of charge, to point your online strategy in the right direction. If you’re keen to learn more, just email and we’ll arrange a convenient time to call you back.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, or would like to discuss a specific issue with your site, please get in touch using the form below.

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Magnus Linklater SEO Consultant

Author: Magnus Linklater

Magnus is an SEO specialist and online marketing professional with over 25 years of digital and traditional marketing experience.

As the founder of Bespoke Digital, Magnus has worked on technical site audits and content marketing campaigns for hundreds of clients and regularly writes about SEO strategy, tips & tricks.

Find Magnus on LinkedIn

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