Last week, Google lifted the lid on ‘Hummingbird’; the first major re-write of its search algorithm since 2001. Whilst recent updates like Panda and Penguin were merely amends to sections of an aging algorithm, Hummingbird is a total rewrite from the ground up. Some remnants of the old algorithm have survived but in the main, the rest of it has been thrown away.

The premise of Hummingbird is simply to reflect the ways in which the modern searcher searches. Smartphones and tablets have made voice activated search much more common and Hummingbird is designed to reflect that.

Over the last decade or so, searchers have learnt to omit so-called ‘useless’ words (“at”, “in” and “the” for example) as Google has typically dismissed these and focused largely on the more important words in the search phrase. However, this can lead to erroneous search results that somewhat miss the point.

How does it work?

Hummingbird is designed to reflect the way in which humans actually ask for information and to this extent, the ‘useless’ words are now very much a part of the picture.

Because verbal human conversations also rely heavily on context and synonyms, this is also a key feature in Hummingbird. As humans, we don’t communicate with each other in the way that we do with search engines, conscious of keywords and context defining phrases at every utterance, so Google now attempts to deliver superior results based on context and previous query recall.

Try this if you have voice search available to you:

Ask Google “How old is Barack Obama?”

Then ask “What is his wife’s name?”

Then ask “How tall is she?”

Then ask “What are their children called?”

That is conversational search, and Hummingbird, in effect.

How will it change my approach to SEO?

The big surprise is that Hummingbird has already rolled out. You are already using it, and have been for the last month.

This is different to Panda and Penguin. This new algorithm is a positive move by Google to improve the accuracy of its results in the modern search era and importantly, it doesn't seek to penalise websites for any wrongdoing. Early indications are that there are no significant reports of websites suffering from the Hummingbird rollout.

What Hummingbird may do is bring longer-tail keywords back to the fore. As the penetration of voice controlled devices increases, conversational search is likely to become an increasingly important consideration and this is something that, in time, marketers will need to adapt to.

Does this mean the end for Panda and Penguin?

In a word, no. It would seem that Panda and Penguin are essentially ‘bolt-ons’ to the Hummingbird algorithm, which is likely to dampen the excitement to come. As Google continues to strive for relevancy in SERPs, it is likely that the issue of these two particular black and white animals is likely to remain a key consideration.