Google Hummingbird for Dummies


If you’re in marketing, it’s very likely that at least some of your day-to-day tasks are either loosely or directly related to getting Google to notice you or your clients.

Google is like the popular jock to your insecure, invisible high school girl persona. No matter how many times Google says, “Just be yourself, and if I like you, I’ll find you,” you’re constantly left wondering whether you could be doing more.

There has to be a way to get an edge, right? Maybe you should sprinkle some more keywords into your site copy. Maybe you should blog and tweet more, or ask your mom to share your content again.

Unsurprisingly, every time Google releases an update to its algorithm (the super complex formula it uses to determine which search results to serve up when), there’s a little frenzy of activity on blogs, as everyone frantically tries to interpret what the changes mean for the online marketing landscape. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Google is always fairly tight-lipped about the changes, leaving everyone to guess—while simultaneously begging them not to. (Just be yourself.)

Last month, we saw another example of the Google update frenzy with the release of something called Hummingbird. (Previous updates were Penguin and Panda—who doesn’t love a cute animal theme?)

The goal of this update, according to various press outlets and the general blog rumor mill, is to better understand users’ intent when searching—to identify not just what they say, but what they mean. Rather than slogging through keywords and phrases, Google wants to see beyond word choice to ferret out users’ real questions and to serve up real answers.

Basically, they want to read minds.

There are plenty of excellent blog posts you can check out to get the full scoop on Hummingbird, but for all of you bottom-line-lovers out there, here’s a rundown of your key cocktail party conversation points:

  • Hummingbird is setting the stage to better manage mobile voice searches (aka the future of searching). If you’re familiar with the proper techy nomenclature, we’re talking about Google automatically translating long-tail searches into short-phrase keyword searches. To borrow an example from this article: when you’re driving and you spit into your phone, “Where’s a good place I can get some pizza?” Google can find your current location, infer from the words “where,” “get,” and “pizza” that a synonym for “place” is “restaurant,” and return options just as clearly as if you’d entered “good pizza restaurants in Denver.” (We’re still comfortable referring to this process as “magic.”)
  • The new emphasis on conversational searching encourages Q&A style content. Google searchers have specific questions, and content writers need to prove that they have specific answers. This article makes a great argument for writing your blog post titles as carefully targeted questions, for example, in order to send Q&A semantic signals to Google.
  • Hummingbird emphasizes the focus on semantic relevance over keyword matching. What is the user really trying to ask, and which websites can answer that question the best? Sites that match the full, specific meaning of a user’s search will beat out those that match the greatest number of keywords.
  • Google is working toward becoming less reliant on keywords in general. Does this mean you should forgo all of your keyword inclusion tricks? Nope. Keywords are still important. But this does introduce the possibility that Google could better reward sites with great content that maybe aren’t so great about keyword inclusion.
  • Better synonym recognition opens the door to more diverse vocabulary. Hooray, we can be creative again! Don’t be afraid to override your keyword-blinded instincts and infuse a little flair into your content.
  • As searchers become more comfortable asking increasingly complex questions, you can capture highly targeted audiences through micro-focusing. Don’t worry that the question you’re answering is too specific to get any attention—for the guy who’s looking for that exact answer, within a sea of more generalized answers, it’ll be a welcome (and highly ranked) surprise.

As for next steps, the general consensus is the same as always: keep writing original, high quality content. Stand out by answering questions better, more thoroughly, or more uniquely than others. And for the sake of your sanity: stop worrying that you’re missing something.

There is no value in trying to “work” Google. It’s really very simple, and has been for a long time: do great work, support others’ great work, and you will be rewarded.


  1. […] Target specific questions and give thorough answers. Instead of trying to do a better job answering questions that have already been answered countless times, find a new, more obscure question and answer that. What’s a question you’d personally like to know the answer to? (Also, some say that Google’s latest algorithm update rewards a more Q&A-driven style.) […]

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