Google Hummingbird: Do We Need to Change our Approach to SEO?

by Ayush Singh

Last updated on November 23rd, 2017

It is not that Google was the only search engine back in the days of Lycos, AltaVista, and Direct Hit. What sky-rocketed Google beyond other search engine was its ability to produce highly relevant, crawler-based results, thanks to its algorithms.

Google makes more than 100 updates to their algorithm annually—most never noticed by marketers and webmasters. But with the recent Hummingbird algorithm update, the biggest in 12 years, around 90% of searches across the globe have been be affected.

With such a dramatic change, you can’t help but notice it. In fact, most of us are asking in response: Does this mark an end to an era? Has the game changed so much that it’s not even the same game?

Even Danny Sullivan had to ask it in his Hummingbird FAQ: “Does this mean SEO is dead?”

His answer? “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.”

So what are these “new and hopefully better ways” for Google Hummingbird to process our questions? And does it change the way we approach SEO? Let’s take a look.

The Web is increasingly mobile and conversational

google search timeline 1997-2013

Google Search Timeline

In the mobile space, more and more queries are conversation-based. (Android anyone?) Search evolution is the major reason for this change.

I like to call this a web revolution because it’s a change in usage from full-sized computers to mobile. Conversational searches are on the rise and the search giant, to keep up, has to be able to answer these questions.

The last three big Google launches made this connection for me:

  • Adwords Enhanced Campaigns – Mobile ad campaign management
  • Google Now – Mobile search personal assistant
  • Answer cards in Google search – Search results where as we ask question and see card-type layout on top of results

This last one is especially significant, since it means Google can all but become your personal secretary, keeping track of data from all your Google services: Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar and Google+. For instance, ask what flights you have coming up, and Google provides a personalized answer card:

sample of a personalized answer card

Hummingbird reflects this new approach to search, bringing results based on key phrase search intent, the inter-relation of words, geo-location, and more. In fact, it’s a giant leap if you take into consideration features like Google Instant, “did you mean,” and auto complete, which have made our searches very contextual.

But this update is quite special in the evolution of how people search.  A major overhaul, it directly responds to the shift in internet usage from traditional “Boolean” or keyword-based searches to context-oriented searches.  It’s also an effort to provide answers to complex words and longer questions.

For instance, we used to type into search, “Hotels in Chicago.” Now we’re more likely to ask “where to find best hotels in Chicago?”

In a way, it’s a brand new beginning to the Web, where natural conversations occur between users and Google. We’re not restricting search to terms and ideas. We’re using questions words like “how,” “why,” “where” and “when,” along with other words which form a sentence.

For more on how Google is leveraging predictive technology, check out this page on Google Now.

screenshot from google now page

It’s all about mobile “conversational search” or “hot wording”

I personally view Hummingbird as more than SEO. From my perspective, it shows a direct connection to Android’s rapid success in the mobile internet. Reason being: “conversational search,” where you can speak your search query.

Google has been working hard to create a search engine so intuitive that when you have a question, your first thought is to take out your phone to search. It’s obviously working. This is the most happening trends of the mobile industry currently.

Google’s VP of search, Amit Singhal, was pretty clear when he said, “Ideally, you wouldn’t need to pull out your phone or tap buttons to use Google. We’re not quite there yet, but you can already do a lot with just your voice.”

And in fact, it is easier to understand that mobile phones do not have the keywords which we can easily type in via keywords. So, this paves the way for voice-based searches, spoken in natural language.

So, the following factors influence the USP of Hummingbird:

  • Mobile internet is a huge domain that’s only now coming into its own. Google is all set to response to voice searches performed on smartphones.
  • This also sets the stage for being “conversational” in approach and in sync with question-answer technology (which is, after all, what search is). An apt example could be something like,” How do I book my ticket to LA?”
  • One thing is crystal clear: The future lies in question-oriented mobile searches.

Intent, more than texts, matter now!

search intent

Here, I would like to start from 2012, when I read about Google’s ‘No Entry’ shown to big sites and some important providers of SEO tools. What Google did was this: It stopped these firms from collecting metrics from Adwords API.

Another important step from Google was encryption of searches when users logged in on Google property (this finally got 100 % encrypted last month).

So, what I draw from these landmark decisions by the search giant is that it wants the SEO industry to focus more on contextual, information-giving results rather than keyword-based results.

Enter Knowledge Graph

screenshot of Google's knowledge graph page

Basically, Knowledge Graph is a technology that gives information about people, places and things alongside Google’s organic results.

With the Hummingbird update, you can also expect to see results from Knowledge Graph technology—the company’s own humongous collection of 570 million concepts and relationships.

Knowledge graph is about understanding concepts and not just words. It helps the search engine understand real-life context. This is achieved by finding the relation between concepts or entities expressed by search terms. (Remember when Google bought freebase?)

What Does the Future Hold for SEO after Hummingbird’s Arrival?

Do we need to change our approach to SEO now?

This is the question we are all asking (especially SMBs). To answer, I think it is time to focus on the real concerns of people visiting our websites, a task that’s easy if our goal is to provide high-quality web content and information for them.

After all, isn’t the very first lesson in any SEO tutorial—to put users first, search engines second? And haven’t we already learned as much from Panda and Penguin updates in the recent past.

But yes, the following concepts need to be understood:

Context-Based Approach: We need to focus on market research as compared to keyword research now. This is the time where the search engine would be delivering results on the basis of context of a question and content of your webpage.   And you may like to include long-tail key phrases so you can create relevant, meaningful content.

Mobile-First Focus: It is time to get serious about mobile. With responsive design and great UI, start building a separate mobile version of your site.

Long-Tail and Knowledge Graph: Matt Cutts, Head of Web Spam at Google, says “the future is about things, not [keyword] strings.” This says it all.

Better Active Participation on Google+:   Set up authorship and join relevant communities on Google Plus.  You need to write posts that gather +1s, thereby creating a reputation for yourself.

With all these attributes, one thing is for sure: SEO is not going to end.

It is just that we need to focus on concept matching. It’s something we’ve all been doing since Panda and Penguin. Correct? It is evident that these changes would take time to get in full swing.

As long as there are questions, there will also be answers. Google is trying to overhaul its image as the new “answer engine.” The real secret to SEO is to jump on board, embracing and using these latest features.

After all, time will tell, but in all likelihood, this update will soon affect the whole web. Why not be at the front of this shift?



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Ayush Singh

Ayush is a search enthusiast and passionate about helping small- and medium-sized businesses with online marketing solutions. He regularly writes about Search Marketing on his blog. Contact him for digital marketing campaigns and PPC campaign management service on his website.


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  1. Anonymous says:
    October 31, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Thank you, I like it. Google is difficult to understand! SEO is an interesting game!

    • Kathryn Aragon says:
      October 31, 2014 at 2:16 pm

      Your welcome! Glad you like it.

  2. shuja says:
    March 10, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks for the guidance. I was looking for the importance of back linking and other classical SEO techniques with hummingbird. Still what about the keyword density and other onpage SEO activities are these still effective

  3. Mark says:
    February 28, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    It is definitely puzzling.
    What if I already have too many links that Google don’t like.
    How can I start fresh again?
    I don’t think Google knows what is a good content. Goggle knows grammar, click though rate and time spent on the page. Everybody has different opinion of good content.
    Anyway, just a thought

  4. Steph Riggs says:
    February 2, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Exactly after Google Hummingbird algorithm update, if you are already paying attention upon quality contents and build high quality backlinks on relevant websites then you don’t need to change your thoughts but if you are using black hat method then its time to think about change. Use only white hat method and follow Google rules and regulation which will lead to top ranking in search engines. Good to read your recommendations after Hummingbird 🙂

    • Ayush says:
      July 8, 2014 at 1:52 pm

      Hi Steph,

      Excuse me for my late reply. I was busy in bettering my other web services. Talking about your view, you are spot-on in terms of SEO ethical practices.

      but you know what, I suggest to ‘earn’ links as compared to build links. For example, this post ..I did not build links for it.. People liked it and shared across the web and it is quite popular now. So earning links is a safer bet.

      What you think about it ?


  5. Jackson Bird says:
    January 30, 2014 at 5:47 am

    Good approach regarding the Hummingbird. I think now everyone should change their approach for the SEO because now everything is changed. Now the links through the blog commenting is also considered as the spam links in addition with the article submissions.

  6. Anh Wu says:
    November 28, 2013 at 11:16 am

    A great write-up. Thank you.

    Even this new algo were on for a few months, I still see search results change very often, it may be that G ranks faster than before. That’s better after all because that means they update faster!

  7. gvr says:
    November 24, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    interesting article with some great points,thank’s for sharing

    • Ayush Singh says:
      November 26, 2013 at 7:03 am

      Thanks for the appreciation 🙂


  8. James Abbott says:
    November 18, 2013 at 8:17 am

    An interesting article with some great points. We have been having many conversations in light of Hummingbird’s deployment and it seems, to us, if following Panda and Penguin you designed your content development strategy to focus on developing user or customer centric content and combine this with content that answers questions – “Who, When, What, Why, How” you should be in a good starting point for the new conversational web.

    • Ayush Singh says:
      November 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      Hi James,

      Yes, I would say. Mobiles and smartphones are the new drivers of search and I personally feel this is owing to amazing success of mobile OSes. And it is not that we not been trying our best to come up with original and unique content after Panda of Penguin, it just like.. we are more focused on solving people’s queries ( besides conventional SEO of appeasing crawlers ).

      How you doing in your SEO campaigns ? 🙂


      • James Abbott says:
        November 20, 2013 at 7:48 am

        Hi Ayush,

        Thanks for the reply. I agree that trying to have the time and resource available to try and focus, create and deliver original andunique content has been really quite hard and something that I, colleagues and clients are still working on developing and fine tuning.

        I think that the next period in the SEO evolution will be interesting and exciting and from a content marketing perspective be good fun on the strategy and creative sides. I am new to being more involved in directing SEO development as I have been more focused on UI, UX and e-commerce developent but our campaigns at the moment are good, developing and so far rankings have remained stable or increased as each new Goolge update/change occurs.

        • Ayush Singh says:
          November 24, 2013 at 6:56 am

          Hi James,

          You are spot-on. SEO has changed in terms of ‘salesmanship’. We would be liking those web properties who ‘tell’ or ‘inform’ us something.

          And I really wish you great luck ahead as UX/UI insights would be playing amazing role in terms of site’s popularity. 🙂 Great work you doing , already ! Just saw your site !


  9. Ghautham says:
    November 17, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Great blog post with a ton of value. Hummingbird will have little impact for my 100% uniquely written content. SEO strategies will always exist no matter the refinements to the mighty Google algorithm. I will simply use analytics to identify any serious impact and adjust any pages accordingly to attract a more positive result.

    • Ayush Singh says:
      November 17, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      Thanks for the appreciation 🙂

  10. Ebrahim-Khalil says:
    November 14, 2013 at 10:02 am

    In sum, write for people who own smartphones and share content? At least it means writing for people and not robots.

    • Ayush Singh says:
      November 15, 2013 at 11:47 am

      Hi Ebrahim,

      Yeah !! You got i right 🙂

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