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Life after Google’s Hummingbird algorithm update – what does it all mean?

It’s been just over six weeks since Google officially announced their new ’Hummingbird’ update. Now we’ve had some time to get our heads round the details,  what does it mean for SEO experts and digital marketers?


Courtesy of Edmund Garman

Hello Hummingbird

Amit Singal, Senior Vice President of search at Google, first introduced the algorithm as the company’s latest and greatest effort to match the meaning of queries performed by users with the content of documents available on the Internet.

This may seem unsurprising: surely, this is the central aim of a search engine? But reading between the lines, it means that Google has received a fuel injection of sorts to make these appropriate matches both more efficient and more effective.

During the announcement of the new algorithm at the end of September, it was confirmed that the algorithm wasn’t about to be sprung on unsuspecting SEOs. In fact, it had already been in place for a month, impacting 90% of Google worldwide searches……without anyone noticing!

Cue frantic rush to check previous ranking data and activity over the past four weeks to see if clients’ ranking had been affected, and if so, how?

Our first step was to review ranking reports to identify any shifts or fluctuations leading up to the announcement of Hummingbird; we posted our finding on the Jellyfish seo blog.

Google-90-Day-Visibility-Hummingbird graph highlighting fluctuations in search rankings around 21st August.

Mozcast charts

Mozcast charts showing search result volatility, with a peak  on 20th August.

The graphs above, taken from the Jellyfish post, both show a peak in ranking fluctuations around a month before the official announcement of Hummingbird.

How Hummingbird works

Although seasoned SEOs are now familiar with algorithm updates, as seen through Penguin and Panda upgrades that previously affected rankings, Hummingbird is a complete replacement of the existing algorithm. Therefore Hummingbird should be considered as a completely new algorithm rather than as another update.

An analytical blog by Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land broke down this algorithm into layman’s terms by comparing Hummingbird to replacing an engine in a car from the 1950’s. Previous updates such as those seen to Panda and Penguin could be compared to replacing worn parts to make the engine run a little better. Hummingbird can be seen as replacing the old engine for a new, faster version which takes into consideration parts of the original engine that worked but needed updating – the switch was made so cleanly that nobody really noticed. The two engines both work the same way, but with the modernised version giving a more efficient output.

According to Amit Singal, the last time the algorithm saw such a massive overhaul was in 2001. However a similar “boost” could be cited in the 2010 Caffeine update. Although Caffeine was another update aimed at speeding up searches, it wasn’t a complete replacement of the algorithm.

The after-effects of the Hummingbird algorithm

As mentioned earlier in this post, Hummingbird has been introduced to closer match queries with relevant results. One major point of this is “conversational search”, where users type in full sentences rather than questions tailored to search engines – for example, “where can I buy a cup of coffee near to me?” rather than “coffee shop Brighton”.

Hummingbird will now consider the value of the full sentence, rather than just generating a search based on several select words within a sentence.

The Guardian reported on what other effects Hummingbird will directly have on SERPs, and it would appear that SEOs can breathe a sigh of relief. Google didn’t have a huge list of types of searches which will be affected by the introduction of the new algorithm, but did provide a few select examples. Pre-Hummingbird, a search on “acid reflex prescription” would have produced sites with lists of drugs whereas instead now the main search results link to more general information on how acid reflux is treated. This would therefore suggest that higher authority sites are now appearing higher in search results, pushing “spammy” sites further down in the SERPs.

Danny Sullivan also confirmed that Hummingbird itself shouldn’t affect rankings, but the updates within it such as Panda and Penguin that are continuously being tweaked.

So, our final consensus is that Hummingbird is here to improve search results, particularly for more complex and conversational search queries, and (so far) seems to have far less immediate impact than Penguin / Panda.


Krystian Szastok

Krystian Szastok

Krystian Szastok works as a Senior SEO Manager at Jellyfish - a leading UK digital marketing agency. In his free time he enjoys staying fit, blogging, reading Terry Pratchett and watching gangster movies.

22 thoughts on “Life after Google’s Hummingbird algorithm update – what does it all mean?

  • While in the short term hummingbird is tearing things up, I think in the long term it will be better for true content creators. Hummingbird is going for sites with more natural language and useful content and not just expertly placed strings.

  • Hi Krystian

    Thanks for sharing those stats – you’re the first site I’ve seen with such a large effect.

    I’ve checked mine and the majority of my clients and didn’t notice anything.

    I guess unless you are operating in a field that attracts lots of spammers you wont be affected too much?

  • Good one on the post Hummingbird update season.

    However, I had one query. I wished to inquire, since Hummingbird is such a critical change in the algorithm, rather a replacement of the earlier algorithm as you mentioned in the article, what changes do I need to make from product retail side? Apart from the content side where I need to include how to buy guides, what else can I do?

  • Hi Krystian,

    “Hummingbird can be seen as replacing the old engine for a new, faster version which takes into consideration parts of the original engine that worked but needed updating – the switch was made so cleanly that nobody really noticed.”

    That’s a great image. It almost feels like the sci-fi world of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘ or ‘Dark City’. The world of search is being changed in radical ways – and we don’t even notice!

  • Krystian Szastok 2013/12/11 at 6:03 pm

    Mark – absolutely, the few examples where I saw changes were quite heavily overoptimised verticals.

    Suraj – Thanks for your comment. From product retail side – I think yes, you should be including more content that answers questions of visitors.
    One example I have which is great (UK based though) is ‘ring sizes’ query where no.1 site ranking is a known jeweller – they have the best guide for ring sizes on their website.
    This way as a retailer they are driving visitors in that convert later on as now they know the brand etc.

  • Krystian,
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
    Google changes but there will always be a very useful advice…
    have a good content

  • Thanks Krystian, for clearly revealing the main objectives behind Humming bird update. After this update it seems that we need to write content based on user’s search queries.

  • SEO Consultant Melbourne 2014/01/03 at 1:19 pm

    It is thanks of your website this brand to your like this is good quailty. Google changes but there will always be a very useful advice…
    have a good content.

  • Is hummingbird fully implemented or is it expected to change and develop over time?

  • Do you have any resolution to prevent or rescue site if my site is effected by hummingbird algorithm?

  • With the introduction of Google Hummingbird algorithm update, those people who have good contents are awarded with good position in search engines and those people who have duplicated contents are kicked away from search engines. From that day, people are paying attention towards quality contents and Hummingbird victims are trying to get recover. Your post is pretty helpful to know about change in life after Hummingbird update.

  • Thanks for this post. This post clears the main objectives behind Humming bird update. Content Writers need to focus more on there good work and should write the content which is user friendly.

  • Another step forward for search engine results to be ‘natural’ and not forced through black hat techniques.

    I personally look forward to the day (if it ever comes) where the idea of ‘SEO’ is redundant and there are no cheap fixes and techniques to shuffle rankings!

  • Thanks Krystian, still nice and relevant in 2014!

  • Good article to read when review the affects after a while of the algorithm running. the stats are quite common to a site of my clients.
    I will agree that this did help with rankings

  • richard gilbert 2014/11/15 at 12:50 am

    Well written
    Great info thanks for sharing Krystian,

  • Very good post on Google Hummingbird. I’m going to share this post around the office. This will inspire those that are tempted to stray, not to.

  • richard gilbert 2014/11/18 at 12:06 am

    Great post love keep it up.

  • Great post thanks for sharing. Just what i was looking for

  • Hummingbird update is the true impetus for content marketers. Gone are the days of crappy content with just keywords. It has opened up a whole new way brands can engage users using meaningful content and solve their queries. LSI is a result of this update

  • Hello there! This is my firs comment here so I just wanted to give a quick
    shout out and say I truly enjoy reading your articles.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same subjects?
    Apprdciate it!

  • Thanks a lot for the information’s. Loved it!

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