During September, and coinciding with their 15th anniversary, Google announced their biggest algorithm change since 2001; Hummingbird – its name chosen to reflect its purpose, “precise and fast”.
So what is it?
Although Google regularly make updates to its algorithms and are ever-evolving to reflect user experience and changing technologies, according to Google’s Search Chief, Amit Singhal, Hummingbird is the most extensive change to the search engine since he started in 2001. Although there have been updates and changes made to algorithms these have largely focused on tweaking or improving what is already in existence. Possibly the most significant prior to this was the Caffeine Update in 2010, however this focused on indexing, ie. the gathering of information, rather than how it is gathered, as is the case with Hummingbird. Panda and Penguin launches have been significant however they were still essentially algorithm tweaks rather than an outright change.
This algorithm is an entirely new however. Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan compared it to installing a new engine in a car, as opposed merely to changes to parts of the engine, as per previous updates. That said it will still utilise previous parts of the search’s mechanisms that did work, including the work of the previous updates.
As well as the breadth of the update, a significant difference to those updates and this launch is the target of the new algorithm – the user. Although Penguin and Panda before it were ostensibly concerned with user experience they were also (or even mainly) targeting misuse of SEO. Panda focused on filtering out poor content whilst Penguin’s aim was to attack low quality links. Some in the SEO industry are concerned that Hummingbird will undermine link building and diminish its role in online marketing. However Danny Sullivan comments on how Google have made clear Hummingbird’s purpose:
“In general, Hummingbird – Google says – is a new search engine built on both existing and new parts, organised in such a way to especially serve the search demands of today, rather than one created for the needs of ten years ago, with the technologies about then.”
So it is designed for the user, what then will the changes mean in real terms?
In very broad terms the objectives for Hummingbird are to increase speed and relevancy for search results. Key changes include:
Conversational search, across multiple platforms
Improved searches on mobiles
Updated Knowledge Graph
The first point is significant in Hummingbird, although some may note that Google had already announced that they were making searches conversation. However this was only on Knowledge Graph. They are adapting to the ways that people search eg. through asking questions in Google searches however it is also a response to technological changes: people also asking questions through voice technology on their smartphones. As a result Google has shifted the focus on search results from keywords to contextualised meanings; what the words in a search actually mean in their given context.
This should mean that people are getting much more relevant results. It will also draw on current technology to better establish the meaning of their search – if they are looking for something close to ‘home’ in won’t just look for the word home on sites but instead use the information that Google has about the user – their location or their actual home if they have submitted the information to their Google account, and therefore use that to return more relevant results.
This implies that it is also a move to make more of and better incorporate Google+ in to searches, by making people’s account information return more relevant results to them. Perhaps we will witness yet greater moves by Google to synch Google+ and searches on Google.com.
What will this mean for link building and SEO?
As Google have made clear, this is not a move to chastise or change the way the SEO community works but is for the purpose of the end user. In theory this means that nothing will change however it may result in a fresh approach to link building being required. Certainly, the new algorithm will mean Google will spot heavy bounce backs, irrelevant links and an unnatural social presence.
What this means for the SEO community is a need to focus on establishing credible, good quality links. In fact, the better these are the more this (and other) updates should in fact be of benefit to those who approach SEO properly – strong, relevant links should help improve the ranking of the site with Hummingbird.
The best approach will include a bespoke approach to link building, rather than, say, a move to increase certain types of links across the board as a direct response to Hummingbird ie. using a blanket strategy as a knee-jerk reaction to changes in the way searches (on Google) work. Instead, the best SEO strategies will include more bespoke link building; looking for relevancy and credibility as far as possible. It’s also important to combine it with other strategies – looking for and forming online conversations with influential people in your niche, contributing to online discussions that will increase authority in your area. Also, of course, as Google keeps reverting to and making clear in public statements – site owners should focus on increasing good quality content that is relevant to and useful for the end user. The result of which will lead organically to better links and therefore search rankings.
It isn’t the case that Hummingbird has killed off link building; it simply requires better practices, a result of which should actually reap rewards with the new algorithm changes.