Google Hummingbird 101: What is Google Hummingbird?

Google Hummingbird 101: What is Google Hummingbird?

google hummingbird 101 by scott davis
The web contains a lot of information about Google’s new Hummingbird algorithm. It’s a topic often asked about by our clients and prospective clients. The range of questions runs the gamut, from “how has my site been affected” to “how many keywords do I get with Hummingbird?”

Some of these questions, I fear, are inspired by outdated or just plain inaccurate articles read online, and while no one on our side of the industry has all the answers on Google Hummingbird, I wanted to take a few moments to set some aspects of the algorithm straight.

So… What is Google Hummingbird?

google hummingbird semantic search a equals bIn its simplest form, Hummingbird is an addition to Google’s overall search thought process and was likely designed facilitate future changes in search. It’s most well-known effect has been on the way it handles semantic search by enforcing the idea that searches which mean the same thing are the same thing.  Google’s launch of Hummingbird went mostly unnoticed until it was officially announced on September 27, 2013 even though it had gone live a month earlier. Some would claim no one noticed, but I can honestly say I’m one who did, if only by accident.

Valet was in the process of studying Google’s “Carousel” and Domain Clustering and how different search queries changed the results. The intent of the study was to determine how SERP results changed in the presence of the Carousel and other Google features. In the end, the outcome wasn’t what we were trying to prove. However, we did discover something worthy of note: Semantic Search.

knowledge graph for semantics re:google hummingbird

Let’s take a step back…

It’s August of 2013 and I’m pulling SERP sets. We’ve chosen a set of 7 or 8 variations of different keyword topics we are trying to target. We want to see when the Carousel shows up with a SERP and for which keywords. We also want to know where our client place in the Carousel and what the first 100 search results are. Our sample set was 15-20 markets across the United States. Large. Medium. Small.

I’m searching a term, dropping 100 results into a spreadsheet and then clearing cache to make my next Google search as clean and non-personalized as possible. Rinse and repeat. Needless to say, it took me a few days to collect all the data we needed for our study. (I’d blame my boss for that, but the sample set and collection process were my idea.)

The data reveals something: variations on the same keyword phrase get almost the same if not identical SERP results. No matter how I modify the keyword – singular, plural, hotel first, hotel after, hotel near, etc – same results exactly, or at most with the same top 10 results with a very slight change in order.

The meaning is clear: search queries that mean the same thing, are the same thing to Google. It may be a different combination of wording or a different way to say it, but it’s still the same concept. These are called semantic search variations.

See the process in action with SERPs for semantic variations of the query “Matt Cutts” below:

hummingbird semantic search for matt cutts

hummingbird semantic search for matt cutts 2

hummingbird semantic search for matt cutts

Ok… now how does this actually change search?

stormtroopers searching google for droidsJust like in Star Wars — when the Stormtroopers can’t find the droids they’re looking for — it drives me nuts having to search a concept using three or four different queries before I finally find what I’m looking for in a SERP. If you know the feeling, then Hummingbird is actually something to get excited about.

Google Hummingbird is an innovation. It’s game-changing! I’ve spent most of my life with access to some form of computer and/or the Internet. In the early days, it was WordStar or dial-up into local BBS systems with a 386.  Point being, I have a LOT of experience trying to find information online.

I’ve tracked down old friends, found obscure songs or games from the past and done countless hours of research for school, clients and occasionally myself. Once upon a time, it was all about using the right query, the correct keywords to generate the actual result you wanted. Early search engines were simple. Knowing the right query to use in Dogpile was sometimes the quickest way to find the droids you were looking for. Old school search meant the user had to search the same keywords as the one targeted by the website they needed. Google Search has come a long way since those days, and Hummingbird has taken it a big step further.

Google Search now knows that when I search “Dallas restaurants” it means the same thing as “restaurants in Dallas TX”.  Why? — Because they are semantic equivalents of each other. It means the same thing. Different wording, slightly different keywords — but it means the same thing. So why should the search results be different? They shouldn’t, and Google Hummingbird gets hummingbird 101 innovation

We found that for the semantically equivalent terms, at most there was about a 5% variance in the top 100 search results.  That variance wasn’t necessarily for different domains showing in the SERP. Often it was only a change position for same domains in the top 5 – 10 results.

I was actually relieved to hear Google’s announcement of Hummingbird in September as it explained all of the data I had been researching.

So what does this mean for my website?

Remember when you needed different pages to target a singular version of a particular keyword or to target a plural or longer tail version of that exact same keyword?  If you aren’t familiar with Hummingbird yet, you haven’t realized those days are gone.

At least one article recapping Pubcon 2013 in Las Vegas reports Matt Cutts of Google as saying that Hummingbird didn’t impact SEO that much. I respect Mr. Cutts’ opinion, but disagree from an SEO’s standpoint. It may not have changed the SERP ranking much, but it did have quite a bit of an impact for SEOs in terms of what they do and how they should be strategically approaching on-site SEO.

What did it change?

Google was already trying to move Internet marketers from focusing on keywords to focusing on concepts and user experience. Part of that nudge was (Not Provided). Part of that nudge was Hummingbird.

If you’ve ever had to optimize a website or write content for one, you understand the pain of aligning the particular phrase the masses in your market search with the content on the page. Trying to work “hotels in Dallas, TX” into a header tag can get tricky. One really has to get creative to naturally work it into 800 words of content enough times to rank for it, while still not coming across as spammy.

Hummingbird is the first step to fixing this problem. When Google Search understands that “Dallas movers” means the same thing as “moving companies in Dallas, TX,” it makes writing optimized content easier. You can produce natural sounding content, phrased the way that converts best with your customers, all while avoiding the linguistic acrobatics to accomplish it. (I have to give props to our Director of Content, Steven Mayo, here. His team’s content was great even with the acrobatics.)

google results for dallas movers

Google results for “Dallas Movers”

google results for moving companies in dallas tx

Google results for “Moving companies in Dallas TX”

So what do we do now?

don't panic over google hummingbird - what to do

To quote Douglas Adams, “Don’t Panic!” This is actually a good thing for most sites. I’ve seen 40-50 page sites that could have consolidated all of their information into 10 pages. At the time they were built, it was necessary to target a singular version of a keyword on one page and the plural version of that very same keyword on another page in order to draw traffic for both.

But now, Hummingbird allows Google’s algorithm to recognize different search queries (keywords) that mean the same thing — so, you can simplify your sitemap and focus your content on concepts your customers want to consume. You can stop worrying about this keyword or that keyword and (Not Provided) while focusing on delivering a unified message across your site and addressing the specific needs of your clients on your site’s subpages.

In layman’s terms, sites can focus on user experience, answering questions and converting customers for the service or product they provide. Simpler site design. Better content. Happier customers.

If you want to spread the widest marketing net possible in the post-Hummingbird SERP, you have to move past focusing on keywords and adopt concept marketing. Use your pages to talk about concepts that draw in your customers and fulfill their needs. If you have a page that’s essentially a rephrased version of another page, maybe it’s time to 301 the conceptual equivalent to the best version of that concept and stop a bit of the on-site cannibalization. It should strengthen the authority of the remaining page of your site for that topic. For more information about keyword research after Google Hummingbird, check out Google Hummingbird 201: Keyword Research after Google Hummingbird.

valet interactive logo

Concept Marketing and Website Design

How does one market a concept? With a confident SEO strategy that adapts to Google’s changes and quality content that connects with the customer and converts them in the shortest number of interactions possible. Rand Fishkin of Moz actually discusses some of this in his April 25, 2014, Whiteboard Friday blog post titled “The Greatest Misconception in Content Marketing.”

In addition, you have to visually satisfy the desires of your prospective clients while making their website experience efficient and educational.

Need help dealing with Hummingbird?

google hummingbird friendly seo by valet interactiveIf your website isn’t ready for Hummingbird, it’s not too late to adapt your strategy.  For the hospitality industry, Valet Interactive can help.  We specialize in hotel Internet marketing with client properties all across the United States and Mexico.

Whoever you work with, make sure the individual or agency understands what Hummingbird is and has a marketing plan that spreads your online marketing net as wide as possible in the SERP.


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Scott Davis

Scott Davis is the Senior SEO Specialist at Valet Interactive. His professional experience in marketing spans over 16 years and includes public relations, direct sales, direct promotional marketing, event planning, e-commerce marketing, writing, editing, search engine optimization and search engine marketing. He is an avid music fan and plays acoustic and electric guitar. Cat Fan.