FAQ: All About The New Google “Hummingbird” Algorithm


Google has a new search algorithm, the system it uses to sort through all the information it has when you search and come back with answers. It’s called “Hummingbird” and below, what we know about it so far.

What’s a “search algorithm?”

That’s a technical term for what you can think of as a recipe that Google uses to sort through the billions of web pages and other information it has, in order to return what it believes are the best answers.

What’s “Hummingbird?”

It’s the name of the new search algorithm that Google is using, one that Google says should return better results.

So that “PageRank” algorithm is dead?

No. PageRank is one of over 200 major “ingredients” that go into the Hummingbird recipe. Hummingbird looks at PageRank — how important links to a page are deemed to be — along with other factors like whether Google believes a page is of good quality, the words used on it and many other things (see our Periodic Table Of SEO Success Factors for a better sense of some of these).

Why is it called Hummingbird?

Google told us the name come from being “precise and fast.”

When did Hummingbird start? Today?

Google started using Hummingbird about a month ago, it said. Google only announced the change today.

What does it mean that Hummingbird is now being used?

Think of a car built in the 1950s. It might have a great engine, but it might also be an engine that lacks things like fuel injection or be unable to use unleaded fuel. When Google switched to Hummingbird, it’s as if it dropped the old engine out of a car and put in a new one. It also did this so quickly that no one really noticed the switch.

When’s the last time Google replaced its algorithm this way?

Google struggled to recall when any type of major change like this last happened. In 2010, the “Caffeine Update” was a huge change. But that was also a change mostly meant to help Google better gather information (indexing) rather than sorting through the information. Google search chief Amit Singhal told me that perhaps 2001, when he first joined the company, was the last time the algorithm was so dramatically rewritten.

What about all these Penguin, Panda and other “updates” — haven’t those been changes to the algorithm?

Panda, Penguin and other updates were changes to parts of the old algorithm, but not an entire replacement of the whole. Think of it again like an engine. Those things were as if the engine received a new oil filter or had an improved pump put in. Hummingbird is a brand new engine, though it continues to use some of the same parts of the old, like Penguin and Panda

The new engine is using old parts?

Yes. And no. Some of the parts are perfectly good, so there was no reason to toss them out. Other parts are constantly being replaced. In general, Hummingbird — Google says — is a new engine built on both existing and new parts, organized in a way to especially serve the search demands of today, rather than one created for the needs of ten years ago, with the technologies back then.

What type of “new” search activity does Hummingbird help?

Conversational search” is one of the biggest examples Google gave. People, when speaking searches, may find it more useful to have a conversation.

“What’s the closest place to buy the iPhone 5s to my home?” A traditional search engine might focus on finding matches for words — finding a page that says “buy” and “iPhone 5s,” for example.

Hummingbird should better focus on the meaning behind the words. It may better understand the actual location of your home, if you’ve shared that with Google. It might understand that “place” means you want a brick-and-mortar store. It might get that “iPhone 5s” is a particular type of electronic device carried by certain stores. Knowing all these meanings may help Google go beyond just finding pages with matching words.

In particular, Google said that Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.

I thought Google did this conversational search stuff already!

It does (see Google’s Impressive “Conversational Search” Goes Live On Chrome), but it had only been doing it really within its Knowledge Graph answers. Hummingbird is designed to apply the meaning technology to billions of pages from across the web, in addition to Knowledge Graph facts, which may bring back better results.

Does it really work? Any before-and-afters?

We don’t know. There’s no way to do a “before-and-after” ourselves, now. Pretty much, we only have Google’s word that Hummingbird is improving things. However, Google did offer some before-and-after examples of its own, that it says shows Hummingbird improvements.

A search for “acid reflux prescription” used to list a lot of drugs (such as this, Google said), which might not be necessarily be the best way to treat the disease. Now, Google says results have information about treatment in general, including whether you even need drugs, such as this as one of the listings.

A search for “pay your bills through citizens bank and trust bank” used to bring up the home page for Citizens Bank but now should return the specific page about paying bills

A search for “pizza hut calories per slice” used to list an answer like this, Google said, but not one from Pizza Hut. Now, it lists this answer directly from Pizza Hut itself, Google says.

Could it be making Google worse?

Almost certainly not. While we can’t say that Google’s gotten better, we do know that Hummingbird — if it has indeed been used for the past month — hasn’t sparked any wave of consumers complaining that Google’s results suddenly got bad. People complain when things get worse; they generally don’t notice when things improve.

Does this mean SEO is dead?

No, SEO is not yet again dead. In fact, Google’s saying there’s nothing new or different SEOs or publishers need to worry about. Guidance remains the same, it says: have original, high-quality content. Signals that have been important in the past remain important; Hummingbird just allows Google to process them in new and hopefully better ways.

Does this mean I’m going to lose traffic from Google?

If you haven’t in the past month, well, you came through Hummingbird unscathed. After all, it went live about a month ago. If you were going to have problems with it, you would have known by now.

By and large, there’s been no major outcry among publishers that they’ve lost rankings. This seems to support Google saying this is very much a query-by-query effect, one that may improve particular searches — particularly complex ones — rather than something that hits “head” terms that can, in turn, cause major traffic shifts.

But I did lose traffic!

Perhaps it was due to Hummingbird, but Google stressed that it could also be due to some of the other parts of its algorithm, which are always being changed, tweaked or improved. There’s no way to know.

How do you know all this stuff?

Google shared some of it at its press event today, and then I talked with two of Google’s top search execs, Amit Singhal and Ben Gomes, after the event for more details. I also hope to do a more formal look at the changes from those conversations in the near future. But for now, hopefully you’ve found this quick FAQ based on those conversations to be helpful.

By the way, another term for the “meaning” connections that Hummingbird does is “entity search,” and we have an entire panel on that at our SMX East search marketing show in New York City, next week. The Coming “Entity Search” Revolution session is part of an entire “Semantic Search” track that also gets into ways search engines are discovering meanings behind words. Learn more about the track and the entire show on the agenda page.

Postscript: See our follow-up story, Google’s Hummingbird Takes Flight: SEOs Give Insight On Google’s New Algorithm.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: Hummingbird | Google: Web Search | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • rahul

    sathiya plz help me i don’t know how to get back my page rank and traffic. my site is so far in google search engine . plz tell me

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    It’s paying attention to each word, the actual meaning of those words, and the meaning in relation to other words. Maybe I can clarify it more in the future.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    I didn’t say the results were better. I actually said we don’t know if they’re better or worse. That’s hardly cheerleading.

  • Newton

    please people… everyone talking talking talking… as if you know “what’s quality”… everyone out there proclaims “quality”… what is that? the answers are as varied as the questions. like big G actually knows what’s quality. still using the same old signals as before, except with a better blog article title tilted towards the reader. From there, the user determines quality…then google reacts.

  • http://www.seo-halle.de/ SEO Halle

    Thanks for sharing!

  • http://seandillonsmith.com/ Sean Smith

    Great stuff, exactly what I was looking for. Well laid out, I like the “engine” examples too, good touch ;]

  • Janvier M

    To be fair to the giant though, how unambiguous would u want it to be? Ya know..

  • David Abramson

    Nice article Danny. One thing I’ve noticed is that while Google is unmatched in terms of bringing us relevant search results, it’s not very good at bringing up the best results for searches like “how to cut cactus if you don’t have gloves” or “how to edit a website before owning a domain”.

    Any idea if hummingbird will improve results for these types of searches with modifiers such as “before, instead of, don’t”?

  • Crystal Pearl

    A lot of individual Etsy shops have become invisible since Hummingbird, only showing up if Etsy pays for them to show in Google Shopping. If you do a search for “bridal jewelry” on Google, you will only see Etsy browse, not individual shops.

  • Appledystopia

    I guess your subtitles are questions in order to appeal to the “natural query” aspect of Hummingbird, right?

  • http://www.yourhowto.net/ Raica Bogdan

    A really interesting article here on hummingbird. Indeed I haven’t really notice any change, but hopefully will be better for my site too

  • http://www.can-goldlink.com/ Alex CAI

    Baidu is just a monopoly SE in China.

  • Lindy Thur

    Hello, I have a business on Etsy and my views and others have gone down drastically. Do you have any recommendations? I’m open for anything and everything. Thank you for your time.

  • Egan Rao

    Top class FAQ Hummingbird list. Adding this into my Hummingbird bible section.

  • http://alex.zheng-dynasty.com/ Alex Zheng

    Thanks for sharing. I’ll link over.

  • CM

    Hits on my blog went down drastically, by over half, in mid-October but in September and early October they were quite high. If Hummingbird went into effect in September, I’m wondering what is going on with the extremely low traffic now….

  • Ruth Smith

    Thank you for writing this, it is concise and simply explained. I actually think this is going to make a lot of difference to the SME”s that make up such a huge part of the UK’s economy, and will bring about more positive results for the independents, sole traders and micro businesses who often lose out to the big corporates in search. I look forward to seeing how conversational search matures.

  • Ruth Smith

    Thank you for writing this, it is concise and simply explained. I actually think this is going to make a lot of difference to the SME”s that make up such a huge part of the UK’s economy, and will bring about more positive results for the independents, sole traders and micro businesses who often lose out to the big corporates in search. I look forward to seeing how conversational search matures.

  • http://www.roytheking.jigsy.com/ Rohit

    Panda Penguin gone……………………Hummingbird come! lets face it

  • aceclue

    Lots are said and heard about the Google Hummingbird algorithm, much still remain unknown. We are waiting to see how this might affect webmasters.

  • http://searchsimplicity.com/ Gregory Smith

    As thorough as always!

  • ebokalsel

    I see that hummingbird = meaning. So would us force to trust that google can understand all questions? i bet no

  • http://www.latest-seo-news-updates.blogspot.com/ Sathiya Kumar

    Rahul.. Don’t bother about PR because Google have stopped updating PR already. In order to improve traffic, Unique content is essential.. Not only content there are 200 factors which Google consider for ranking a website so i can’t give proper suggestion for you without knowing more details about your website..

  • surajnaikin

    is that Google really found out that they are suppose retrieve the meaning of the words, was not that the idea of search engine since beginning. I’ve been formulating the content of my site so to express the meaning…is that what Humming bird update is really? Surprised

  • surajnaikin

    is that Google really found out that they are suppose retrieve the meaning of the words, was not that the idea of search engine since beginning. I’ve been formulating the content of my site so to express the meaning…is that what Humming bird update is really? Surprised

  • http://www.seo.kirbyworks.net/ Kirby Hopper

    I wonder when content marketers, SEO’s, and especially Google will realize that people aren’t going to read all this great, in-depth content? Most people in our culture don’t have the attention spans, intelligence, or fortitude to wade through it all. In web design we tell our clients they have 2 and one half seconds to inform the potential customer that they have found what they are looking for. There are long cycle sales where people actually do a little research but it seems to me Google and the whole industry is under the false impression that’s every niche out there. It just isn’t.

    I’m waiting for the too-much-in-depth-content-because-your-customers-want-a-better-user-experience penalty.

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