Hummingbird: Google’s Kinda-New Algorithm

Pat Marcello

Sep 30, 20133 min read

We all know that Google and every other search engine on the planet uses an algorithm to rank websites for their search engine results pages. Algorithms determine what your site is about, how fast it is, how important it is in the scheme of the Web (how many links it has from other sites), and whether or not your Web pages are properly prepared to be presented to their search clientele.

Panda and Penguin wreaked havoc. Even some sites that were perfectly legit and done to Google’s exquisite requirements were hit (including my own), and webmasters scrambled to make things right in order to win the sacred imprimatur of Google again. But Panda and Penguin weren’t full algorithms. They were filters, run periodically to weed out sites deemed unworthy. The new change IS a full algorithm rewrite and is called “Hummingbird.” And guess what? It’s not really new. Google just announced it as part of their 15-year anniversary celebration, during which the press was told that the new algo has been running for a few weeks.

What Does Hummingbird Do?

Speed is a big deal. I’ve talked about that a lot since Google’s Caffeine update in 2010. With that algorithm revamp, it became very important for your site to load fast and to have a streamlined architecture, which gave spiders the ability to crawl your site quickly and provide faster indexing of its pages. The new twist is an enhancement. Google says it named this new major algorithm change “Hummingbird” because it’s “precise and fast.” Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land equates the change to changing the engine in a car. In his recent post, “ FAQ: All About the New Google ‘Hummingbird’ Algorithm,” Danny says:

“Think of a car built in the 1950s. It might have a great engine, but it might also be an engine that lacks things like fuel injection or be unable to use unleaded fuel. When Google switched to Hummingbird, it’s as if it dropped the old engine out of a car and put in a new one. It also did this so quickly that no one really noticed the switch.”

Yet, Google says that it’s more like a rebuild than a complete swap. Newly engineered tweaks were added to parts of the old algorithm to create Hummingbird. The biggest change is that Google should now be able to handle what they call “conversational” search. That means if you type in “What is the difference between A and B?” the search engine results pages (SERPs) should give you relevant answers to your query, rather than information that isn’t remotely related. It’s more of that “semantic search,” which I talked about in “Semantic Search: Why SEOs Need to Think Differently,” in July. Hummingbird seems like a huge shift toward the semantic search we’ve been talking about since 2007 or earlier.

Do you hear keywords crashing down around you? Not yet. Search engines are most definitely getting smarter, but they’re not as intuitive as they might become one day. Hummingbird seems like just another step in that direction.

Why is this happening?

This big change became necessary because of the way we search on mobile devices. Many of us tend to speak our search terms into our mobile devices, and Hummingbird is designed to better recognize these types of searches and to provide better results. Scott Huffman, a Google engineering director, told Forbes Magazine in " Meet Hummingbird: Google Just Revamped Search To Answer Your Long Questions Better” they want to get into a more “natural conversation” between people and Google. Though Google has been applying this type of filtering for Knowledge Graph results, Hummingbird is now using that consideration in regard to the billions of pages existing on the Web. It’s another attempt to find the good stuff and kill off the bad. The good news about all of this is if you haven’t lost traffic in the last month or so, you came through the Hummingbird update without a hitch. If you did lose traffic, and had no godly reason why, it might have been Hummingbird. But then again, maybe not. Google loves to tell us that they’re constantly tweaking the way their algorithms and filters work. It could have been something else.

Oh, great. Right? How do you know? You can’t really. The only thing you can do is to keep an eye on your Webmaster Tools account. Make sure you haven’t gotten any miscreant link warnings or lost any links in bulk. Make sure your pages are well-written without spelling or grammar errors, and be sure you’re meeting all of the other guidelines set forth in Google’s own SEO guide.

As an interesting aside, Google officials held the announcement in the Menlo Park garage, where Google’s Sergey Brin and CEO Larry Page founded the company. Though the incorporation actually happened a few days later, Google celebrates its birthday on September 27, every year.

Author Photo
Pat MarcelloPat Marcello is President and SEO Manager at, a full-service digital marketing company that serves small- to medium-sized businesses. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Google+. Pat’s last article for Semrush was "Google's Fetch and Render: Why It's Important."
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