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How the Google Hummingbird Update Gets People Talking

Morgan Meade
Morgan Meade / March 04, 2014
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Hummingbird and Voice Search - NR Media (Source:

Since Google’s Hummingbird update, we look a little more sane when voice searching through our devices.

Have you noticed fewer people angrily repeating “keywords” into their phones? Maybe, you've gradually gotten more specific with your text searches without even realizing it.

You can thank Google Hummingbird, the silent algorithm revision launched before their 15th anniversary back in September 2013.

What is Hummingbird? Google Search Then and Now


Think of it this way: Google used to pile results into bags of links labeled using “keywords”, and the eight to ten most popular were right within grasp on the first page of results.

We then blindly reached in and sorted through each grouping until we got the information we really needed. The Caffeine update in 2009 was the last major algorithm change, affecting the sorting speed and integrating social signals into ranking results.

Example: Foodies like myself may have searched “best brunch” and gotten recipes, blogs, or a few restaurants in the first page of results. (Not so helpful when you're looking for a premium pancake experience.)


Google Search Timeline - NR Media Google's Search Autobiography


Along came Google Hummingbird in September 2013, named for the speed and precision with which it delivered results. To the frustration of SEOs everywhere, this was in conjunction with keyword referral data being phased out of analytics.

This doesn't mean carefully curated content has gone to waste.

The Hummingbird algorithm uses more semantic signals to match queries with web copy. Instead of a blind grab bag of results categorized under wide "keyword" labels, Hummingbird selects specific options based on combinations of in-text clues like verbs, previous searches you’ve made, or even your current location.

Combined with conversational search, this update is a big signal that a world of wearables isn’t far off.

Example: “Where is the best place to get brunch?” returns a list of highest-rated restaurants serving brunch in your area. Your location is implicitly derived from your account information. Google realizes you’re looking for a restaurant from the word “get”.

Gearing Up for Tomorrow’s Mobile-Dominated Landscape

Smartphone penetration in 2014 is expected to rise from 65% in 2013 to 75% this year. Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt announced, "Mobile has won."

[Tweet ""Mobile has won." - Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google"]

This was a major driver of the Google Hummingbird update. As technology shifts towards wearables, we are interacting more with our devices via voice. How should this affect the ways you work to get your content viewed, and company found by clients? According to CopyBlogger, it’s now a lot more important to know your customer.

Speaking Your Customer’s Search Language

Semantic Search Ads by Google Semantic Search Ads by Google

A few intense hours of brainstorming, some focus groups, or customer empathy exercises will really be worth the investment. Follow these steps to bring your strategy up to speed:

  1. Think about unique things your company provides, and call it out. Make a list of your unique value propositions. Maybe you make some bomb chicken and waffles. Would someone craving them be able to find your business?
  2. Determine what the word on the street is about your company (literally). How would someone refer to your products in a conversation? As Google’s algorithm gets smarter, people will speak to search like they would a friend. It’s a little creepy to consider.
  3. Discover new ways to establish thought leadership. What kind of questions would people would ask that could lead them to your site? What could they want to know about your products and services?
  4. Create narrowly focused content around these insights formerly known as “long-tail phrases”, or the lists you’ve compiled so far. The more specific to your target audience and company voice, the better.

Social Conversation Signals

Service businesses – ratings and reviews are now your best friend.

Do you serve the best damn blueberry pancakes in town? There had better be a bunch of people who publicly agree.

Get people talking online about the benefits of brunching with you over your competitors, your friendly service, or selecting those stars as frequently as possible. Google Hummingbird evaluates ratings from many sources, like Urban Spoon and Yelp, so diversify your social assets accordingly.

Talking the Talk

Google Voice Search - NR Media Group Google's Voice Search Icon

Trends toward voice search are a result of technology becoming increasingly integrated into everything we do.

Algorithms that learn our speech patterns and adjust to deliver more accurate results accordingly make it easier for us to find what we need to know online. The key takeaway for marketers is that we should integrate ourselves into customer conversations by speaking their language. Make it easy for everyone else (aka Google) to discover what makes you unique, and reap the benefits of increased visibility.

Read more about the future of search: Google Patented Pulling Search Results from Our Conversations

Read about Pew's recent findings on how social media connect people and brands: Six Social Conversation Structures


Tagged With: Content Marketing