What does the Hummingbird Update mean for SEO?

Just as we are learning to cope with the Penguin and Panda updates, Google comes out with a new one. While it’s tempting to take these new announcements in stride, this is one you can’t afford to ignore if you are involved with SEO in any way.

The Hummingbird update is actually a bigger deal than the last few ones, as it represents a change in Google’s algorithm. Whereas Panda, Penguin (and Caffeine, for those of you who were aware of it) were basically changes to the existing algorithm, Hummingbird is a complete overhaul! That’s why you can’t afford to ignore it if you don’t want to get left behind and risk having your sites fall off the radar.

What is Google Hummingbird update?

Google Hummingbird update

Google claims that the name Hummingbird was chosen because hummingbirds are birds that are precise and move fast. Although this update was announced in September, 2013, Google has apparently began implementing it a month earlier.

One of the main aspects of Hummingbird that you need to be aware of is the emphasis on conversational search. This is not brand new in itself, as the search engines have been moving in this direction for several months now. With Hummingbird, however, this is going to be a major focus on how the search algorithm operates.

What is Conversational Search?

Google first introduced conversational search in the Spring of 2013. At first it was only available on the Chrome browser. As the name implies, this is the type of search that works with normal human conversation. This is designed to make searches easier and more intuitive.

In the past, search engines mainly worked using keywords. While online marketers and SEO specialists have learned to think in terms of keywords, this is not natural to the average person who is simply trying to find something on the web.

Google is trying to create a more user friendly interface so that people can type words into the search engine in a more natural, conversational manner. For example, suppose someone is driving through a town called Appleton and wants to eat. Using keywords, he would type in something like “restaurants Appleton”. Using a conversational search, however, he would be more likely to type in “Where can I eat dinner in Appleton tonight?”

To people accustomed to using keywords, conversational search might seem less efficient. As the above example illustrates, it often involves using more words. Yet the objective is to make the search more human and normal, as though you were talking to another person. This is also being incorporated with “speak your search” features, as it’s easier for people to verbally speak their questions rather than type them in.

Conversational search goes a step further, however. It is set up so that once you begin a “conversation” with the search engine, you can continue it without having to type in the same keywords over and over again.

Suppose you wanted information on a celebrity such as Oprah Winfrey. You might start by asking the search engine “How old is Oprah?” It might reply “Born in 1954, 59 years old”. You might then ask, “Where was she born” and receive the answer “Mississippi” without having to mention her name again.

In other words, Google retains the context of the conversation so you can ask further questions as though you were talking to a person.

This conversational approach is far from perfect and if you test it you will find glitches. The point is that this is the direction Google is moving with its search engine algorithm.

That is how it works for people doing searches. What does this mean for SEO purposes?

Hummingbird, Conversational Search and SEO

Google Hummingbird

Conversational search has important implications for SEO. For one thing, it works hand-in-hand with local SEO. Since this type of searching is designed to be tailored to each user’s particular situation, businesses must learn to anticipate what terms and phrases potential customers will use when searching.

Let’s say you have an auto repair shop (or you are doing SEO on behalf of this auto repair shop) in Newark, New Jersey. Rather than just rank for keywords such as “auto repair Newark”, you would now want to think of as many relevant phrases as possible that customers might use to find this business.

This might include “Where is an auto repair shop on Main Street in Newark?”, “Where can I get my brakes fixed in Newark?” or “Who fixes cars in Newark?”. Since this technology will also be working with GPS, it will also be able to answer questions like “What is the nearest auto repair shop?” based on the searcher’s current location.

The same principle applies to non-local (or strictly online) businesses. To effectively work with conversational search, it will be necessary to think like the prospect or customer.

Aside from conversational search, Hummingbird represents a continuation of Google’s policy of rewarding relevant, high quality content. So all of the principles that were important under the Penguin and Panda updates will still apply for Hummingbird.

How to rank your sites under Hummingbird

In order to rank well with the new Hummingbird update, it’s necessary to think more and more like your prospect. Imagine you are a person seeking out a certain type of product, service or piece of information. You can then optimize your site by making sure that as many relevant phrases and questions are included in your site’s description and tags.

Although Hummingbird represents a major shift in Google’s algorithm, it isn’t quite as scary as Penguin and Panda, which caused many websites to lose ranking almost overnight. Hummingbird is more of a gradual change towards conversational search, with a continuation of the principles Google put in place several years ago.

The bottom line is that to rank well in the future, you, a website owner or SEO specialist will have to become every more attentive to what your audience is searching for!