Yesterday, on the eve of its 15th birthday, Google ripped a page right out of a teenager’s playbook, and gathered its crew in a suburban garage.
That’s where they officially announced Hummingbird, the search engine’s new algorithm. It wasn’t just any garage though; it was the Menlo Park, CA garage that Google called headquarters in its infancy.
Before you get too excited, I have to tell you that they haven’t released much in the way of technical information just yet. But, before you throw yourself off a cliff, I should tell you that Google has reassured us that the changes don’t have any big implications for SEO.
You don’t even realize it, but Google makes several hundred small changes to its algorithm every year. Occasionally they’ll tell us about a major change and give it a cutesy name like Caffeine (2009), Panda (2011), or Penguin (2012), but they say that this is the largest search algorithm modification made since the company’s early years.
Years ago, when Google started to dominate internet searches, we all amusedly observed how the company’s name had become a verb. It seems that with this latest move, the almighty G has now become pretty damn close to being a person.
Searches have been modified to reflect users’ increasingly common habit of phrasing searches as questions. Perhaps Siri ushered in this fairly recent belief that it’s totally normal to ask machines questions. Google says, “Bring it!”
Ask and You Shall Receive
As supported by Search Engine Land here, Google’s new algorithm results in what some are calling a “conversational search” wherein Google take a more holistic approach to understanding your query. Instead of breaking down a multi-word search into keywords, it now seeks to “understand” the meaning of the full phrase or question
Think about it like a conversation between two people. When you ask someone, “Where’s the closest place to get good tacos?” the person doesn’t give you a definition of tacos, a dumb-ass blog entitled “Good Tacos,” and the address of the Taco Bell down the street, do they? No way; they recommend highly-rated Mexican restaurants within a couple miles of where you’re standing. Duh!
Hummingbird aims to do the same thing: to give you relevant answers by presenting a variety of sites that will get to the heart of what you’re asking.
This advancement isn’t brand new though. Last year, Google released Knowledge Graphs to allow the search engine to detect relationships between concepts. This uses a method called Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI), which identifies patterns between words and concepts.
With this new algorithm, Google is also more capable of answering complex questions that can’t be answered through visiting just one site. For instance, the question, “What is New Orleans like?” doesn’t have a simple answer, and Hummingbird helps Google understand that.
Your search results to a question like that will give you links to sites about the city’s history, travel sites that recommend things to do, a page about that describes weather averages, and a cultural hub that teaches you about its customs and traditions.
Information Week says Google claims that one cool feature is that, like in a conversation, Google remembers recent prior searches in order to follow the thread of the conversation it’s having with you. Supposedly, you can ask, “Who was the 34th president?” then the follow-up, “How tall was he?” and Google knows you’re talking about Eisenhower.
However, I did several tests with this, asking Google pairs of questions about the same topic, and leaving the subject out in the second search (i.e. What’s the population of Chicago? When was it founded?) G, like my 15 year old nephew, totally spaced out and didn’t know what I was talking about on the second question. Maybe that feature will improve as Google continues to tweak this new algorithm.
Another useful addition is the improvement of answers to comparison questions. Instead of doing a search on the benefits of Cross Fit and a second search on the benefits of Spinning, and then comparing the two findings yourself, you can now do one search that will compare for you in one, unified search.
Relationship Status: It’s Complicated
I know, you’re thinking, “Enough already! What does this mean for Search Engine Optmization?” Yeah, that’s a great example of a complex question.
In the past, Google has always announced significant algorithm updates on the day that they take effect. Hummingbird is a bit of an anomaly though. The company is saying that they actually implemented the new system over a month ago.
I think this is supposed to reassure us that it won’t have any major impact on our traffic and that it won’t unravel the painstaking SEO work we’ve done. The message here is, “Hey, calm down…you’ve been using it for weeks and haven’t even noticed! SEE?!” as it slowly backs away, looking for the nearest exit to avoid a mob of livid, weapon-wielding SEO professionals.
Now, is that entirely true? That remains to be seen. Google generally releases these big updates in waves across different regions, so it’s possible that we haven’t noticed any major differences in our rankings because Hummingbird hasn’t actually landed in our neck of the woods yet.
Will the new algorithm optimize the user experience and engender a warm sense of coffee-talk intimacy between searchers and search engine without f-ing up my life’s work? I certainly hope so, but we don’t know enough yet to answer with any confidence. Stay tuned for more, my SEO-minded, profit-obsessed friends, stay tuned.