Everything You Wanted to Know About Google Hummingbird But Were Afraid to Ask

Google-HummingbirdBased on a few emails I’ve had this week and some comments left on Sarah’s last Fast Five in Search post, it’s apparent that some of you are still confused about Google Hummingbird and what it means for your site’s performance in Google.

I’ve gathered together some of the key points and added some of my own insights below to try and shed some light on the issue.

Google Hummingbird: A Summary

  • Hummingbird is an entirely new search algorithm, representing the most major change to the Google search engine since 2001.
  • Google has been using Hummingbird since late August, but only announced it in late September.
  • The new algorithm helps Google sort through “conversational search” faster and better understand the context of the conversation. Conversational search has natural language processing and semantic search built into it. For example you can now *speak your search* on Chrome and it will repeat it back to you before displaying contextual search results related to your query. You can then extend your search “conversation” by asking further questions in a way you can’t do with regular search, e.g. using shortcuts that reference your previous query. Often, information cards will be shown alongside search results.
  • Hummingbird focuses better on the meaning behind the words based on the context of the search query and the searcher. 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. Hummingbird is designed to apply the meaning technology to billions of pages from across the web, in addition to Knowledge Graph facts which should provide better, richer results.
  • Hummingbird now allows Google to be better at relationally linking search queries and Web documents which means that its Knowledge Graph has been considerably enriched.
  • Hummingbird focuses on user intent versus individual search terms.
  • Google will likely use Hummingbird to better process social signals and this could turn out to be a major SEO ranking factor in the near future.

Key Examples of Hummingbird at Work

  • A search for “acid reflux prescription” used to list a lot of drugs, which might not be necessarily be the best way to treat the disease. With Hummingbird, Google says results have information about treatment in general, including whether you even need drugs, such as a “treatment for acid reflux” article posted by the Mayo Clinic.
  • Another example: Today I searched for “What can I take to help me sleep?” on Google.com. I noticed that nearly half of the top 10 results were Q & A or *How To* style articles. I also noticed that suggested medicines treatments featured more prominently than they used to (see screen shot below):

Google Hummingbird: Key Takeaways

  • SEO is now less about keyword data and more about customer engagement.
  • As a result of Hummingbird, SEO strategy has become more about creating quality, engaging, shareable, linkable content within a logical context (i.e. using semantic markup and natural language). The aim is to become an information hub and trusted source. This can be achieved by answering searcher questions and creating content that emulates those information cards that Google supplies in response to conversational search.
  • Hummingbird and the increase of *Not Provided* (hidden keyword) data means you now have to measure the success of your web site via the entry pages and the number of pages receiving organic referrals i.e. It is now critically important that your website answers questions for end users. Content that answers specific questions will be critical for Hummingbird success. Websites can’t grow their entrance pages without introducing new content regularly.
  • It’s now less about the keyword and more about the intention behind it. Not having keywords provided in analytics makes it harder to discover customer intent, but we can get clues about that by monitoring visitor pathways on our sites and actively engaging with customers on social media and other channels.
  • Google’s saying there’s nothing new or different that 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 better ways.
  • If you haven’t lost traffic in the past two months, you probably came through Hummingbird unscathed as it went live about 2 months ago.
  • There’s been no major outcry among webmasters 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 can cause major traffic shifts.


David Amerland, search engine expert and author of *Google Semantic Search* says Google’s move toward semantic search will benefit SEO practices:

“Google has increased its ability to deal with complex search queries which means that it also has got better at indexing entities in Web documents. From a strategy point of view this opens the horizon for companies and webmasters considerably. From a practical perspective, the need to identify the USP of each business and become authoritative within it is now a key criteria for continued SEO success. The comparison element that has been integrated suggests that semantic mark-up may begin to confer an advantage now when it comes to helping index information in products and services.”

He emphasizes the importance of content not being left in isolation, but instead shared across social networks via identified influencers:

“This is not something that can or will happen at the drop of a hat,” said Amerland, “It requires time and commitment to building a relationship with influencers and sharing with them content that is of real value to their network.” Quick SEO, according to Amerland, “Is now firmly in the past.”

Google Hummingbird: Changes You Should Make Immediately as a Result

So exciting improvements for searchers, but where does that leave you? Here are some recommended changes you can and should be making to your web sites as a result of Hummingbird:

1) Add Question Answer Pattern Content (e.g. like you find on a Q & A page or a Facebook comment thread )

2) Set up a Google+ page for your business if you haven’t already done so.

3) Implement Google Authorship on your site/blog and link it to your Google+ page.

4) Use Schema Mark Up for any rich technical data on your site, such as product specifications, dosage instructions and garment sizing.

5) Ramp up your social marketing activity to take advantage of Google’s new conversational search skills and make sure you cross-promote your social channels with your main web site content.

6) Implement Mobile SEO Tactics (e.g. increase load speed, reduce file sizes, increase mobile content)

7) Increase the Domain Authority of Your Site  (via more incoming links)

8) Add new content to your site REGULARLY. The addition of new content is now absolutely vital to online marketing efforts in a post-Hummingbird environment. If you can’t add fresh data to your web site on a regular basis, get ready to wave to your competitors as they go sailing past you towards the top of the SERPs.

Speed is of the essence. This information is only just filtering out into the SEO world. The sooner you can respond with Hummingbird-friendly content, the more traffic you’ll get before your competitors will even know what’s hit them.

Questions? Comments? Please add to this thread.

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Google Social Search – Choose Your Friends Wisely

Refusing to sit still long enough for anyone to catch up, Google has rolled out another Labs experiment to the public. Google Social Search Beta launched last October, hard on the heels of Personalized Search. But this week, Google graduated Social Search out of Labs and into the public sphere.

What Is Google Social Search?

As we become increasingly connected online, we start to build around ourselves a community of people that we have regular contact with and websites where we spend much of our time. This is called our social network. Now Google has worked out a way to measure and leverage these individual social networks so they influence the search results we see. Those results therefore become more relevant to us and more influential over time.

Google determines your social network based on the connections found in your public Google profile. Connections are classed as either direct connections or secondary connections. Your Gmail chat buddies and contacts are direct connections, as are connections from links listed in your Google profile (e.g. people you follow on Twitter, LinkedIn or FriendFeed). Secondary connections are those publicly associated with your direct connections (e.g. the people that your friends follow on Twitter).

To see your social profile on Google, login to your Google account and visit the social dashboard. The first time you do this, Google will collect all the social data it has stored about you, based on your Google Profile and public content, and build what they call your *social circle*.

After Google builds your social circle, whenever Google’s algorithm determines that your search experience will be improved, it annotates regular web index data with social data customized from your social circle and adds this information to the bottom of your search results.

You MUST be signed in to Google to see this. If you’re not happy with the results, say from Twitter, you can delete your Twitter account from your Google profile to prevent published info from your Twitter connections being added to your social circle.

You can also add or block Google contacts so you don’t see information from them in your social circle. In the reverse, you can choose what content you want to make public, based on your published Google profile.

How Does Social Search Work?

Google Social Search has been in experimental mode since October, but this week it’s been rolled out to full public Beta, meaning you should now see social content in your search results on Google.com. Google hasn’t rolled Social Search out to their regional sites at this stage, but this is expected soon.

To see social search results in action, login to your Google account, then run a search. You’ll see the heading *Results from people in your social circle* towards the bottom of the search results page. For example, if I run a search for *music blogs* on Google.com, I get the following social circle suggestions:


Because Matt Burgess and Tim Burrowes are in my social circle and have blogged about music, I see their content at the top of my social circle results.

If you want to see more social results, click on the *Show Options* link at the top left of the page and click on the *Social* link in the side menu under *All Results*. This will bring up search results sourced entirely from your social network. You’ll also see a list of your friends and connections under the menu heading *All People*. You can click on a particular name in the list to bring up more results from their public content.

Next to your social circle results are two links that are new additions to the service added to coincide with the public rollout: my social circle and my social content (pictured). These take you to your social circle dashboard that I linked to earlier.

The *my social circle* tab displays your extended network of online contacts, as well as the pathways that connect you. Clicking on the *my social content* tab brings up your public social media profiles, taken from your Google profile, that might appear in other people’s social results (pictured).


Apart from this social dashboard, the other major difference between the original Social Search experiment and the new public rollout is the addition of Google Images into the mix. If anyone in your social circle has shared images on Flickr or Picasa and Google determines they are relevant to your search query, you may see these in your search results as well.

Judging by my social search experiments to date, I believe Google has been collating social results for some time. A key observation is that relevance seems to win over freshness in the social influenced search results – some of the top results in my social circle were from 2008.


How Do You Take Advantage of Social Search?

  1. If you haven’t already done so, create a Gmail account and create and flesh out your Google Profile immediately.
  2. Join more social sites if you want your content to appear in the SERPs of your direct and secondary social circle networks, particularly the primary ones Twitter, Flickr and FriendFeed.
  3. Optimize your social media content (tweets, FB and LinkedIn status updates, blog feeds, etc) for target keywords to ensure your social content is shown in a wider number of social circle SERPs.
  4. Gmail and Chat contacts get top billing in your social circle so choose your Gmail buddies wisely or remove them from your profile altogether.
  5. Consider the type of social content that is popular and most often shared within your networks. Concentrate on building similar content in your public social media profiles to ensure it gets syndicated via your social circle.
  6. If Universal Search wasn’t enough of a punch in the gut to convince you to optimize your multimedia content, consider Social Search to be that punch placed a little lower. Your shared photos just became another content channel.
  7. Become more picky about who you follow and what social feeds you subscribe to. They have just become influencers in your every day search results.

What if I Don’t Like It?

If your particular social circle seems a little lightweight or top heavy, you can control what results you do and don’t see under your social search results. You can choose to either remove a social network from your Google profile (such as Twitter or Facebook), or remove a specific contact from your network.

You can ignore the social results at the bottom of the page when signed in, or if you don’t wish to see any social search results at all, simply conduct your searches while signed out of your Google account.

It’s important to note that Google doesn’t make your social circle public e.g. publish your list of chat buddies. It simply adds your buddies’ public information to YOUR social circle.

What Does it All Mean?

What this really means is that standard SERPs are a thing of the past. Over the last couple of years, we’ve come to expect that a search for *blue widgets* will pull up completely different results for someone in London and someone in New York. But with Google having rolled out personalized search, real time search and now social search, you and your flatmate could be sharing an Internet connection in the same room and be served very different SERPs for identical search queries.

As for how this impacts online marketing? For starters, if you’ve been hoping social media will just go away, it’s time to wake up and smell the pancakes. Not only is online social networking not going anywhere, it is thriving and changing how we search. It is now in your interest to expand your social network and create a presence on as many social sites as you can.

More importantly, your clients will be looking to you to help them understand how to use social search to their advantage. Embrace the opportunity and get socializing.

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