A quietly functioning algorithm

What is Google Hummingbird? What does this 2013 algorithm update consist of? How has it changed the world of SEO? It’s one of the most important yet mysterious updates in Google’s history, designed with an ambitious goal: to handle complex queries and accurately intercept user search intents. Given its success, today we take for granted the consequences of its impact. To best adapt to the innovations introduced by Google Hummingbird, you can continue your education by choosing an updated and comprehensive SEO Specialist Course.

What is Google Hummingbird?

Google Hummingbird is a search algorithm whose name is chosen to evoke the speed and precision of the hummingbird. It was born with the ambition to solve all the algorithmic flaws before it and is presented as an evolution of the search system. Google’s former vice president, Amit Singhal, clarifies that it would be correct to define the Hummingbird update as an infrastructural change, addressing and controlling many elements of Google’s algorithm.

Google is a search engine, and its main purpose is to offer consistent and quality answers to any user request. For this reason, an algorithm was introduced, flying through billions of sites and web content like a hummingbird, influencing 90% of searches.

In September 2013, Big G hinted at the launch of Google Hummingbird, suggesting that it is one of the most significant interventions since the introduction of Caffeine in 2010. In the days following the announcement, no official documents were released providing insights into the “Project Hummingbird”, but fortunately, journalist Danny Sullivan, present at the event, managed to interview Amit Singhal and extract some details, drafting the Hummingbird FAQ article.

Later, Eric Enge and Danny Sullivan in “Hummingbird, Google Now, and the Future of Search” delve into detail on how Hummingbird is a complete rewrite of search platforms.

How does Google Hummingbird work?

To understand how the Hummingbird update works, it must be clear what a search algorithm is, which Amit Singhal describes in very simple terms:

It’s a technical term used to indicate a kind of recipe that Google uses to order the billions of web pages and other information it has, to return what it believes are the best answers.

For Google Hummingbird, the goal is to understand user search intentions, not just provide results that simply contain the keywords of the query. Simultaneously with the Hummingbird update, Google has exponentially improved functionalities on mobile devices, where not only traditional searches are performed but also those based on voice recognition. It is understood that these are searches closer to spoken language that the algorithm tries to interpret the real meaning, analyzing them in detail.

hummingbird algorithm user search intent

This analysis aims to provide consistent results to specific requests that develop in new forms, such as conversational searches and long-tail keywords (long-tail), usually phrases composed of three or more terms. To achieve this goal, Google has started to consider synonyms and the history of user queries, creating a context in which certain keywords are used. Recognizing synonyms alone was not enough, which is why context interpretation was implemented to determine the meaning of the term used.

In addition to contextualizing queries, the update analyses all the content on the web through word co-occurrence, i.e., the analysis of the frequency with which they occur on a page, observing their relationships. Thanks to the study of words that appear more frequently on pages and the contexts in which these terms are found together, the update can direct users to specific content.

The work of Hummingbird consists, therefore, of decoding user requests, paying attention to semantics, valuing the natural language of content, and considering the context of keywords. If you are interested in these dynamics, below is a test to discover if SEO is a suitable discipline for you.

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The main features of Google Hummingbird

To better understand Google Hummingbird, Amit Singhal’s metaphor is illuminating, illustrating how the new algorithm, inserted into the search engine, synergistically operates with other updates.

Think of a car built in the ’50s. It might have a great engine, but it might be missing pieces like the fuel injector or might not be able to support unleaded gasoline. When Google switched to Hummingbird, it was as if it set aside the old engine and inserted a new one. […] Google Panda, Penguin, and other updates were changes to elements of the old algorithm, but not a complete replacement. Those corrections acted as a new oil filter for the engine or the insertion of a new pump. Hummingbird is a brand new engine, which continues to use some perfectly functioning parts of the old one, like Penguin and Panda.

google search timeline

The Hummingbird update succeeded in making the search engine understand human language, which is a key goal of the Semantic Web. This was possible thanks to the focus on certain components and implementations introduced in the “Google Search Timeline”, such as the Knowledge Graph.

The Knowledge Graph and semantic search

The Knowledge Graph is a feature that enables the search engine to understand the context to which the words in the query refer, providing fast and accurate results and presenting the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) that is closest to the user’s intention. Undoubtedly, it has been a crucial element in approaching the concept of semantic search and facilitating the natural language of conversational searches, previously referred to as long-tail keywords. In an interview in the Hummingbird FAQs, Amit Singhal himself states:

People, in terms of searches, might find it more useful to have a conversation. When asked, ”What’s the nearest place to buy an iPhone 5s near me?” […] Google Hummingbird will focus more on the meaning behind the words. It might accurately grasp the actual location of your house if you’ve shared it with Google. It could be understood that, with the word ”place,” you are referring to a store […]. It should be known that ”iPhone 5s” is a specific type of electronic device some stores offer. Understanding all these meanings can help Google go beyond simple searches for pages with matching words

Voice search, and the human touch

An additional pivotal factor has been the rise of voice search, closely tied to the proliferation of mobile devices. While the Google Hummingbird algorithm learned to provide results that matched user needs through discussed techniques, the precision and significance of local data became increasingly crucial. The combination of location data with colloquial language processing and understanding human intent transformed semantic search goals into reality.

google hummingbird vocal search

Google has committed to searching for “human” as possible. To comprehend the essence of this objective, consider how, before the Google Hummingbird update, it was challenging to find answers on topics of which one had little to no knowledge. Hummingbird sought to address this obstacle by working on synonyms and analyzing similar topics. In this way, the update allowed Google to get closer to human language and enable people to approach unfamiliar or desired content more effectively.

Summing up what has been discussed so far, we can outline a list of the features and innovations brought about by the Google Hummingbird update:

  • it is the most significant infrastructure update since the introduction of Caffeine;
  • it affects approximately 90% of search engine results;
  • it rewards the quality of website content and analyses it deeply through the Knowledge Graph and Co-occurrence;
  • it aims for semantic search rather than keyword search;
  • it places greater importance on text, recognizing natural language;
  • it encourages the use of conversational searches and long-tail keywords;
  • it is highly effective on mobile devices, providing quick, personalized, and geolocated information.


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Does Google Hummingbird impact SEO?

If, as you may have guessed, it can be said that the landscape of search results has been overturned, the facts show that Google Hummingbird has not changed SEO.

Hummingbird has led the search engine to distinguish between two similar, but different queries, analyzing and contextualizing them. SEO editors mustn’t focus solely on keywords but grasp the relationship they have with the site in which they are created and strive to intercept the needs and intentions of users to satisfy them and provide useful information. In this sense, intelligent use of keyword co-occurrence will help Google understand which requests you intend to answer. In summary, we enter the world of semantic SEO.

Considering that Hummingbird selects content that meets user search goals, it follows a general guideline to follow:

conversational search seo

  • identify a specific audience;
  • create content that answers what the user is looking for;
  • do not force page placement with an excessive use of keywords;
  • propose multimedia content, from videos to infographics, fun and shareable;
  • provide information clearly and quickly, using natural language;
  • develop links with pages similar to those on your site;
  • optimize content for mobile devices;
  • keep the site updated.

No, SEO is not dead. – Amit Singhal claims – In fact, Google is saying that there is nothing new that SEO publishers should worry about. The guidelines remain the same: have original and high-quality content. The elements that have been important in the past are still valid: Hummingbird allows Google to process them in new and, hopefully, better ways

In conclusion, Google Hummingbird is not an algorithm to be feared, but one to be considered carefully so that your content respects Google’s search engine ranking rules and increasingly meets the needs of users.


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