14th October 2013

Hummingbird: The truth behind the latest Google algorithm update

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Google Hummingbird update

If you live in certain parts of the world, for instance California, then hummingbirds are a common sight. Unfortunately we rarely, if ever, see them in the UK. The hummingbird is an amazing creature; it expends huge amounts of energy in order to feed from the nectar of the abundant flowers that nourish its apparently insatiable appetite; it must balance the energy invested with the energy returned, and that beautiful bird can survive only if the equation is biased to the right.

Why a Hummingbird algorithm?

Google is amazingly adept at the innuendo of names; for proof, just check out the Google doodles. Its latest algorithm modification wasn’t called the Hummingbird simply because it sounds nice. It is called Hummingbird as it is supposedly a better and more efficient way of feeding from the flowers of information that are available in order to deliver a more efficient way of answering our questions. It looks at every word in our search requests and attempts to discover the real meaning behind them; to discover exactly what we are really looking for.

The Semantic Web

The semantic web isn’t just a dream of Tim Berners-Lee; step by step we are slowly getting there, and the Google Hummingbird moves us just one more step in the direction of that desirable goal.

Google’s intention is that Hummingbird will deliver better answers to questions that are posed in everyday language. It is the latest iteration in Google’s primary goal of understanding exactly what people are searching for and delivering it to them in the most efficient way possible. 

Hummingbird and SEO

When Google changes the way in which it indexes the web there is an inevitable consternation induced amongst the many SEO organisations that exist by dint of their ability to ensure that their clients’ websites appear high in the search results pages when potential customers search using appropriate keywords.

Historically SEO businesses have exploited weaknesses and strengths in Google’s early algorithms by concentrating on building back links in order to raise their clients’ organisations page ranks; it isn’t surprising that some of them used somewhat unscrupulous practices. For such organisations the Panda and Penguin updates to the Google algorithm were wakeup calls; suddenly quantity had become subservient to quality, and poor quality was penalised heavily.

 It has to be said though that there was also collateral damage; many high quality websites were caught in the crossfire and suffered accordingly.

A pinch of salt

So, what does Hummingbird mean to us? Will it provide improved search results? Will it affect search page rankings? Should SEO organisations be concerned?

According to many commentators, and in fact as stated by Google itself, Hummingbird is not just a tweak to the previous algorithm, it is a complete replacement. It is a different approach to the way in which our requests for web pages are serviced.

Should we take these comments with a pinch of salt? If you search Google for “a pinch of salt” then you will be directed to the idioms dictionary at the top of the first search results page. Google will have grasped that you are not looking for recipes that need a little salt as a seasoning.

But what happens if you add a location? Hummingbird is said to focus on the here and now; locations are crucial. Say we search for “a pinch of salt Nottingham”? What would you expect it to come up with; perhaps something to do with Robin Hood?

No; in fact you get in order: an article by Nottingham University that “Low-sodium advice for asthmatics should be taken with a pinch of salt” (nice title!); a recipe for Mushroom Stroganoff published by the “Nottingham Drinker”; a promotion for a catering organisation; and pages promoting Nottingham beers along with salty snacks to eat with them.

Should we worry?

So, should SEO organisations worry? Will your company website disappear from the search results pages?

The simple answer is no on all counts. The only thing that we really need to take with a pinch of salt is Google’s over-hyped claims. There is no doubt that they would like to be able to offer a semantic search service, but Hummingbird falls well short of that worthy ambition. But at least we know in what direction Google is heading, and that can be very valuable knowledge.


Tim Berners-Lee proposed the semantic web well over a decade ago. It is a web that cannot only be read by machines as well as people, it is a web that can be understood by machines. Why has it taken so long in coming?

The simple answer is that the concept of the semantic web is totally dependent on metadata and the problem with metadata is that it is even easier to manipulate it than it is to manipulate fundamental data.

Hummingbird is a small step in the right direction even though its initial impact is less than revolutionary. But watch that space; at least we know in what direction Google is heading. Have you been penalised by Hummingbird? Creode provide a fantastic range of SEO services that can help with your search engine rankings, give us a call today.