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How Google Hummingbird Changes Search

Posted on: October 25th, 2013

On September 27th Google announced an overhaul of its search algorithm. Dubbed Hummingbird, because it’s “precise and fast,” the new algorithm is a look at the future of search. Its primary purpose is to allow for more conversation-style querying—think asking questions instead of typing in key phrases. Google also has a host of upgraded features that you may or may not have noticed recently. Let’s summarize how it works and what’s new.

Under the Hood

First, here’s what we know about Hummingbird under-the-hood.

    1. Hummingbird is a complete overhaul of the search algorithm and incorporates the Panda and Penguin updates. That’s important to know because it keeps the emphasis on high quality content and reputable backlinks, a direction Google has been moving in for some time. For content publishers, there’s no reason to go back to the drawing board in terms of making good content. Content is still king.
    2. It looks at over 200 signals when determining search rankings. Pagerank is still one of those signals.
    3. The technology behind Hummingbird is driven by mobile search. There are now more voice-only features and searching is becoming more like how you would do it on a mobile device. Google is betting that the future of search is on mobile…which isn’t much of a bet.
    4. Hummingbird heavily utilizes the Google Knowledge Graph, which is like an encyclopedia of information with connections to inter-related things.
    5. Google can understand conversational searches on some level.

New Features

Here’s the fun stuff. There are a number of new features in Google search and you may have noticed them popping up in your search results the last few months. That’s because Hummingbird has actually been in place for about a month and the full extent of its changes are just now coming to light. Let’s review.

1. Conversational search works. Hummingbird has the ability to better understand the context and meaning behind a question and return results. This was driven by voice search on mobile platforms and is now part and parcel of the desktop experience. For example, you can type in the question “how tall is kevin durant” and get the answer directly at the top of the results page: 6’9”.

durant_info_card

In fact, the answer you’re looking at is an “information card,” which is pulled from the Knowledge Graph. This eliminates the steps of doing a search for Kevin Durant, pulling up a website with his stats, and finding his height.

2. Comparisons. Speaking of Knowledge Graph, search will now return results if you do comparisons for certain items. Try typing in “compare beer and wine”. The info card at the top of the page is courtesy of the Knowledge Graph.

Compare Beer and Wine

Many comparisons won’t work, or rather, they’ll return normal organic results. Try typing in “compare hotels in Orlando” and you’ll get organic results. Type “compare lebron james and michael jordan” and also regular results. On the other hand, try “compare Italian restaurants in winter park”. You’ll get a fancy slider with all the Italian restaurants in Winter Park displayed at the top of the page. This isn’t a comparison per se, but it’s still pretty darn useful. That slider is a new Google feature and is available on desktop and mobile . The comparison feature is in its infancy, but you can bet it will improve with time.

Beer vs. Wine

3. Voice Search. If you use voice search on your Chrome desktop browser, Google will return a voice answer if it’s contained in the Knowledge Graph. Try speaking “how tall is kevin durant” into voice search and listen as Google speaks the answer back. Nice! Note, this feature isn’t available on non-Chrome browsers. I tested this a bunch and it worked great, rarely did it not understand what I was asking.

4. Bacon Number: This is a small feature, but a fun one, and it points to where Google is going with all this interconnectedness. Search on “vince vaughn”. Over on the right of the results page is a giant info card with some basic stats about the actor. The last row is “People also search for”. Click on Owen Wilson. Notice under the slider of actors there’s a line that says “Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson appear in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and Old School.” Google is drawing the connection for you out of the Knowledge Graph and delivering it front and center. Search is anticipating what you might also be interested in and where you might want to explore further. You’ll start to see more connections like this in the future as it becomes more sophisticated. BTW, SEO folks are calling this feature the Bacon Number, as in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Vaughn and Wilson

5. Voice Search Remembers: The real icing on the Hummingbird cake is that, when doing a voice search, Google will remember your initial search and apply the context to the next couple of searches. It also allows for pronouns and other conversational idiosyncrasies on a basic level. Wait, what does that mean? It means if you ask Google “how tall is the world trade center” in your first search, you can then ask “where is it located” in the second search and you’ll get the location of the world trade center, even though you didn’t say “world trade center” the second time around. You can even keep going with additional queries and maintain “world trade center” as the subject of the search and keep using the pronoun “it” to refer to it. Not too bad, eh?

People understand this conversational flow intrinsically, but Search is only now starting to do it. By the way, this only works with voice search, not typing directly into your browser. We’re only at the beginning of this stuff…Don’t be surprised if you’re having entire conversations with your search engine in a couple of years.

Check out this quick demo of Voice Search in action. The original query is “who are the architects of the freedom tower”. Notice on my final search–“show me a map”–it  delivers relevant results, but not a Google Map as you might expect.

Where is all this going? Google search is getting more sophisticated, more conversational, and more relevant. Pretty soon we’ll  be speaking our searches out loud and getting results for things we hadn’t even thought of but wanted to know.

Articles used to source this article and many thanks to their authors:

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