The Anniversary of Hummingbird

Last September, after causing consternation among website owners with Panda and Penguin, Google let loose a Hummingbird. While the initial responses to Panda and Penguin tended toward fury and vituperation, most site owners greeted Hummingbird with confusion.

A little background, in case you’re confused right now. Google uses an algorithm, which is a step by step process (like long division, as opposed to heuristics like the way you decide whom to hire) in this case including hundreds of factors, to rank websites according to their value and trustworthiness. Google has to update the algorithm often for a variety of reasons, including marketers who try to game the system and changes in the way people search for information. Panda was an update specifically designed to smack down site owners who published duplicate and thin (poor quality) content. Penguin was directed toward those who got masses of low quality backlinks in an effort to trick search engines into thinking their sites were more valuable than they really were. If you’ve been doing your SEO in a responsible fashion rather than with tips and tricks, algorithm updates usually are good for you.

Hummingbird was a response to improvements in technology.

Computers are kind of like human brains, but not quite. Computers are better at some things than we are — computing or calculating, for example, and remembering specific information — and much worse at other things, like human language. A typical three year old is enormously better at human language than any computer.

Google, among others, has been working on that. Hummingbird was an algorithm update that celebrated that fact and put it to use. For the past year, Google has been better at understanding larger amounts of language, rather than just having to rely on counting keywords. The conversational style of searching people use on mobile devices makes more sense to Google now than before, and Google can tell better than ever what you’re talking about at your website.

Hummingbird was actually put in place in August 2013, and announced in September of that year. That’s why we’re being a bit vague about the anniversary.

It was an enormous change, but a change in technology, not in the characteristics being used to make decisions about the quality of websites. Google would like its algorithm to be just as good at judging the quality of a website as a human being is, and Hummingbird was a big step in that direction.

What did that mean for SEO? It became harder to game the system than it had been. Quality, original content became more important than ever. SEO pros who had been using high quality content, highly usable websites, and good design and code were happy. That includes us and our clients.

Google said that search results improved. If so, you’re probably used to it by now. In the same way that you don’t respond with gratitude to electricity and running water daily and probably haven’t celebrated the improvements in engineering relating to those utilities during your lifetime, you probably don’t feel consciously grateful for search engines every time you use them. You probably don’t consciously notice their improvements.

But if you tried to find a hotel or a natural remedy in 2008 with a search engine, you probably remember how pointless it was and how cluttered the SERPs were with spam sites. If you tried to find general information about common subjects in 2010, you probably remember how frustrating it was to comb through all those vapid articles.  Hummingbird was another step along the path of ongoing improvement. Worth a birthday cake? Maybe not. Worth a toast, at least, along here in the next month as you find the information you want quickly and easily. That’s worth celebrating.

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