On the 27th of September, on the eve of Google's 15th birthday, the search giant announced it had rolled out an update called "Hummingbird" which is designed to improve the quality of search results. The name was chosen to reflect the "precise and fast" way this update works. But what exactly is "Hummingbird", why is it so important and how will it affect the future of search and SEO?

How Does Google Hummingbird Affect Searches?

Amit Singhal, a senior vice president and software engineer at Google has said: "Hummingbird affected 90% of searches worldwide.". So it is important for us to understand what this update means.

This algorithm change involves a deeper analysis of the searchers query to get a better understanding of the intent behind the search phrase itself. This is an age-old problem: Some searches can become ambiguous and return poorer results because of the use of language. Consider a search for "best place for sushi in manchester" - you may find better results with "best restaurant for sushi in manchester" which is the phrase more likely to be used on the websites you want to see in the search result rankings. By 'swapping' semantically connected words and testing the results, Google can make a much more educated guess at what type of results you would likely be most happy with.

Interestingly, SEO By The Sea notes that Google applied for a new patent recently (US Patent 8,538,984, granted on 17th of September 17, 2013) which looks tantalisingly like it outlines the new search technology Google has added to it's ever-growing arsenal.

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on a computer storage medium, for:

  • •Identifying a particular query term of an original search query
  • • Identifying a candidate synonym for the particular query term in context with an other non-adjacent query term of the original search query that is not adjacent to the particular query term in the original search query, Accessing stored data that specifies, for a pair of terms that includes the particular query term and the candidate synonym of the particular query term, a respective confidence value for the other non-adjacent query term,
  • • Determining that, in the stored data, the confidence value for the other non-adjacent query term satisfies a threshold, and
  • • Determining to revise the original search query to include the candidate synonym of the particular query term, based on determining that the confidence value the other non-adjacent query term satisfies the threshold.


Why Make This Change Anyway?

With newer technology like the growth of mobile voice search and applications like Siri, it makes sense to offer a much more 'human' input to be able to offer more appropriate responses to real world questions - some of which may be hurriedly searched while on the move!

Speaking about this update, Amit Singhal says:

"The change is needed to be done ... because people have become so reliant on Google that they now routinely enter lengthy questions into the search box instead of just a few words related to specific topics."

This helps to back up the idea that Google's Hummingbird update is most focused on the input itself.  In terms of the impact on SEO - only time will tell. It is likely that the impact may not even be that noticable for most people, but due to the fundamental shift in how Google interprets the input it may well have a small effect across a vast range of searches, which might explain the 90% figure quoted by Amit Singhal.  

This marks another step in the direction of "semantic search" - more than just a buzz word - it's been a big focus of Google for the last couple of years.  The aim has always been to combat spam and ensure the best search quality by looking at the context of a phrase or link to obtain more information about the backdrop against which this takes place. If your SEO is done well, none of these updates should present a problem!