Over the last few months Google has secretly rolled out an algorithmic update called "Hummingbird." Upon hearing of it, many in the SEO community panicked, fearing they were at the mercy of another animal that would wreak havoc on their search engine rankings and income.

Unlike Panda and Penguin, however, the Hummingbird updates were rolled out without an announcement to the webmaster community. That's because they were not targeted at Web spam. Nevertheless, search engine results pages (SERPs) have been chaotic lately.

This article will discuss the following:

  • What Hummingbird means for SEOs
  • The difference between Hummingbird and Panda/Penguin
  • What you need to do to maintain high rankings heading into 2014

Will Hummingbird Affect Most SEOs?

For the sake of brevity: No. Unlike Panda and Penguin, Hummingbird is not aimed at taking down sites that rank high because of Web spam. Instead, Hummingbird is a move toward a better understanding of semantics (and the use of Knowledge Graph, explained below).

In particular, Hummingbird attempts to understand conversational language better than it did in the past. Previously, a search for "pizza parlors close to my house" would attempt to match keywords "pizza parlors" and "my house." If there were a pizza restaurant called "My House," it would most likely choose that as the best listing regardless of the restaurant's being located thousands of miles away.

Hummingbird = Understanding Intentions

When humans speak, we understand the intentions behind the words people use. Hummingbird is Google's first attempt to understand semantics at that same level.

Accordingly, Google has invented and implemented what it calls "Knowledge Graph," which is based on the idea of better understanding searches and providing better data in a more readily available format.

For example, if you were to search for "museums in Los Angeles" before the Hummingbird update, you would get your normal list of paid and organic listings. Now, the same search returns a horizontal bar featuring 10 images that link directly to museums in Los Angeles.

According to the results page, those are the results that are "frequently mentioned on the Web." And peering through the results, you can see that the sites they've returned are highly accurate. More important, they appear above both the paid listings and the organic listings.

So This Does Affect SEO...

Yes and no. For the most part, Knowledge Graph is an attempt to deliver data in a faster and more efficient way. Think side-by-side comparisons, lists, distances between places, etc. Hummingbird does not seem to affect commercial searches, however.

While our search for museums returned a Knowledge Graph bar of choices, searches for local dentists (for example) still return the results they always have.

But the SERPs Have Been Chaotic Lately...

Remember, correlation does not equal causation. No one knows exactly what takes place when Google updates its algorithm, but we do know when they target Web spam. In most cases, Matt Cutts announces either directly or indirectly what the Google updates will be focused on (Panda, Penguin, Russian SAPE network, etc). Lately, however, Mr. Cutts has been quiet.

Over the past few months, we've seen what many SEOs have labeled "Penguin 2.0." Rather than announcing a new update aimed at spam (remember Hummingbird was not aimed at spam), Google has continued adjusting the Penguin algorithm.

We know that because rankings have been fluctuating dramatically, even though many of us have not changed anything about our approach to SEO.

Here are a few examples of the changes that have been observed...

What to Do Heading Into 2014

Keep in mind I do not work at Google and do not know its algorithm. I do manage dozens of sites (including test sites), however, and have identified patterns regarding what's working and what's not working. I also network with other SEOs who manage dozens of sites, and we share information.

For starters, the Panda and Penguin updates are more sensitive than ever. Over-optimizing your anchor texts is a sure way to get in trouble. Disrespecting link velocity, as in sending unnatural blasts to your site, is also a sure way to get slapped. That has been true for a while, but Google is getting better at recognizing this inherently unnatural type of link-building.


Authority is now more important than ever. Authority sites are consistently outranking sites with dozens and even hundreds of high PageRank backlinks. In addition, authority sites can withstand link blasts while newer and less respected sites cannot.

That's important, because having authority not only allows you to build links faster but also prevents you from being susceptible to "negative SEO" and potential penalties. Unfortunately, becoming a content powerhouse and "authority" overnight is virtually impossible.

To expedite the process toward becoming an authority, you need to get homepage links from highly authoritative and highly trusted websites that are related to your niche. And you need to look beyond PageRank (which hasn't been updated in a year).

Instead, when building links, focus on metrics like Trust Flow and Page Authority, which SEOMoz consistently proves has a statistically relevant correlation to first-page rankings.


The Hummingbird update and current/future Panda/Penguin updates are not much different from what we've seen in the past. Google still likes content-heavy, authority sites. And it still penalizes SEOs who make it obvious they are trying to game the system. The only difference is that Google is getting better at separating the wheat from the chaff.

To stay on top, focus on authority. That includes providing authoritative content and getting trusted links from authoritative domains. Considering that Google hasn't updated PageRank in almost 12 months, those PR6 links you're spending a ton of money on could be doing little to build your site's authority status. And authority sites are absolutely dominating the SERPs right now.

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Should You Be Worried About Google's Hummingbird Update?

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Chris Laub is the owner of Sling SEO, a results-oriented SEO services firm.

LinkedIn: Chris Laub