What Is Google Hummingbird, How Does It Work & Does It Change SEO?

I’m a bit of an abnormal blackhat. Most blackhats ignore the ‘news’ and just carry on working as normal no matter what Matt Cutts or others say.

I tend to pay attention to the news. Earlier this year Matt Cutts gave several interviews in which he said that Google would eventually be changing the way they handle queries to better adapt for ”Conversational Search” as more and more queries were being done via smartphones and less were being done through what is typically keyword-driven desktop search.

He even did a video discussing the topic:

In fact, the news was everywhere but most people ignored it as being insignificant. I took note of what he said and started a site with that ‘tid-bit’ of information in mind.

My mission was simple – build a site purely around questions. That meant that the title of posts would be questions along with various subheadings in the content of the post. The rest of the content would go on to answer the questions asked in the titles and after September 14th, I began to notice a major shift in Google’s algorithm had taken place.

Today we now know that shift was to be known as ‘Hummingbird’ and that this was the change that Matt Cutts eluded to in his interview from earlier this year.

How Does Hummingbird Work?

While I don’t work for Google (and therefore can never say definitively) there are plenty of clues being left around. Putting together the pieces isn’t that tough.

From my standpoint, it appears that Hummingbird works in two separate ways.

  1. It takes a user query, runs it through a synonym and modification module and then takes that modified output to conduct the search.
  2. It more favorably weighted documents with question-oriented titles and sub-headings as having more valuable content to the users query.

So in other words it takes a user query and modifies it, then conducts a search with an index that more favorably ranks documents that are written to answer questions.

Now this is a really short explanation and isn’t at all meant to be the final word on the topic. In fact there are much more detailed explanations out there already, but it wasn’t my goal to reproduce material that already exists.

That of course bring us to what my area of expertise is… SEO.

What Were The Effects Of Google Hummingbird?

Remember when I said that I had built a site with this new information in mind? Well as it turns out, that gave me the perfect platform to analyze the effects of Hummingbird and determine what had occurred when it was implemented.

Let’s look at the traffic chart:

As you can see from the trend line, beginning September 14th there was a shape increase in the amount of traffic the domain received from Google.

As you can see from the trend line, beginning September 14th there was a sharp increase in the amount of traffic the domain received from Google.

The domain in the chart has just over 50 pages indexed by Google and is receiving as many as 170 unique views per day as a result of the Hummingbird update.

  • Every page on the domain uses a question as it’s title and in the subheadings of each page.
  • The average document length is roughly 1300 words and as many as 3800 words.
  • The domain is only a few months old and established post-penguin 2.0
  • The only link building done has been a few comments on relevant blogs

Let’s take that in contrast to another, much larger domain that used very few questions as the titles of each document.

Here you can see that there was a sharp decline in traffic with much lower peaks than had previously been seen.

Here you can see that there was a sharp decline in traffic with much lower peaks than had previously been seen.

This domain is much larger, but took a serious hit in traffic on September 14th and 15th. It did recover slightly, but the highs have never been as high as they were previously.

This domain is also much older and had far more links built to it over the past few years.

As you can pretty clearly see, using questions as your titles makes a truly significant difference in how much traffic you can expect to pull in from Google since Hummingbird.

How To Do SEO For Google Hummingbird

Looking at the two examples above, it’s pretty clear that building documents that answer questions is clearly the way forward. Make no mistake, this is a drastic change from where SEO was even just 30 days ago.

While keyword-driven SEO was ‘all the rage’ and has been for 15 years, it would appear as if times are changing.

Unfortunately, that will create a new set of problems on SEO blogs and forums all over the web. I’m shocked, and I mean absolutely shocked to see Dan Sullivan say that nothing has changed in SEO. It’s right at the end of his post:

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.

dansaidwhatDan actually let me down with that because SEO has changed… Dramatically.

Google has made a clear shift from favoring keyword-driven pages to answer-driven pages (that include the keywords) and to say that nothing has changed is simply wrong in my opinion.

Ask yourself the question – if a website goes from 15-30 pageviews a day up to 200 pageviews in the matter of a week, does that not indicate a serious change someplace?

Look at the first chart I posted again – Yes, something has dramatically changed.

If you are at all interested in getting more traffic to your site out of Google’s SERPS you will start writing content that answers questions and it’s as simple as that.

Is SEO Dead After Hummingbird?

Ha! No. In fact SEO just became a whole lot easier.

Why? because we know exactly what Google wants. They want answers to longtail questions.

This is really simple, when you know exactly what Google wants and you give them just that then your content related on-page SEO will take care of itself.

And this is really simple to do!

The Simple Way To Optimize For Hummingbird

seoisdeadonemoretimeIf you recall, back in grade school you learned about the 5 W’s. In case you aren’t clear on what they are, here you go:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
  • How

Yes, how is a part of it even though it’s not a ‘W Word.’ Starting your title with one of these words will almost ensure that you are getting off on the right foot to optimize for Hummingbird.

The reason being is that you are asking a question as your title and then answering it with your post/page.

How Does Hummingbird Affect Affiliate Marketing?

Quite honestly, it should make affiliate marketing much easier because you are going to be able to rank and pull in substantially more traffic just by answering questions about the product(s) you are promoting.

This won’t really appeal to blackhats and I understand that, but from a purely affiliate marketing standpoint this is fantastic.

You will be able to provide value to both your customer and the product owner by educating your audience on the product’s features and benefits much more easily.

The obvious benefit to you is that you will be able to outrank other affiliates and get traffic that they aren’t able to if they are still playing ‘yesterday’s game.’ Ultimately, traffic normally means sales as long as the rest of your marketing strategy is in place and working.

My 2 Cents

I couldn’t be happier than I am with Hummingbird. I think it was a good move on Google’s part in terms of providing value to the end user – but it’s also a great thing for marketers at the moment.

I’ve instantly begun adjusting all of my content strategies to reflect this change and will continue to pursue the question/answer model as long as Hummingbird is actively being used.

I think that it will be much more profitable for affiliates and gives some light at the end of the tunnel for those who took a beating during Penguin.

A Word To The Blackhats

Things haven’t changed guys. We still have all of the toys that we’ve always had. Cloaking, Cookie Stuffing, Clickjacking, Autoblogging, etc is all still there.

In fact, autoblogging should be really fun these days if you are using real algorithmically generated content and not just mashed content from God knows where using an inferior tool or method.

Append your keywords with questions and use those phrases as your new keywords, pump out the content and call it a day.

Questions & Comments?

Leave them for me below, I’m always happy to hear from you.

UPDATE 10/9/13

I just thought I would take a moment to show you the current traffic chart and trend line form the site that has performed well post hummingbird.


As you can see, traffic has continued to improve considerably, reaching over 300 pageloads and over 250 unique visitors a day.

It’s really interesting to see this kind of evolution and I will continue to monitor the traffic to update this post as appropriate.