Google Hummingbird, Robotics & Artificial Intelligence

A hummingbird’s heart beats 1,260 times every minute and they can fly at 60 miles per hour. They can flap their wings up to 90 times per second and can quickly stop/start and fly in any direction. They are tiny, clever and lightning fast.

When it was introduced last September, Google’s ‘Hummingbird update’ was their biggest algorithm overhaul in 12 years. In fact, rather than being an ‘update’ like so many before, Hummingbird is actually a new algorithm which has replaced the old one. This newly coded core to Google’s search engine is smaller yet much more powerful. It is more efficient, more intelligent and faster too… So the moniker is right on the money.

Has Hummingbird fundamentally changed how Google works?

Yes and no. Loose foundations for the ‘new’ features in Hummingbird were laid with the Knowledge Graph, which was introduced to search results around 12 months ago (December 2012). The knowledge Graph was a ‘learning algorithm’ (in other words, a form of artificial intelligence) which sought out logical connections between the many pieces of information Google picked up from around the web; about places, people, things, dates etc. It then used those connections to deliver more refined search results to users.

You can read more about it in a blog we wrote which outlines all the major Google updates and initiatives since 2011: Venetian Penguin, Phantom Panda. (If you don’t know much about previous Google updates, you might want to read that article before continuing…)

The Hummingbird algorithm is merely a progression from the Knowledge Graph, albeit re-coded. It is constantly learning as it devours more data and creates/refines more logical connections. These connections—along with enhanced personalisation of results, especially where location is concerned—mean Google can better understand the context behind searches and therefore deliver answers rather than just lists of keyword-matched web pages. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. And as you’ll see in a few paragraphs, the implications potentially go WAY beyond search results.

Shaking your tail feathers

Many hummingbird species dive from great heights to create a ‘singing’ noise from their tail-feathers as they vibrate in the wind. Hear me out… this is relevant:

Google’s Hummingbird approach to understanding context and logical connections means that it can deliver more specific results when searchers use longer search queries.

More words = more context = better results.

To put that in SEO terms…. the ‘semantic connections‘ allow for much more intelligent processing of ‘long-tail‘ search queries.

Yeah I agree it’s pretty tenuous, but it does tie in with the name doesn’t it?

(You can read more about ‘the long-tail’ and how Google want you to think about it here: Post-PRISM SEO | Google Have Stopped Tracking Keywords).

Google’s old method of analysing search queries for relevance was entirely centred around matching constituent ‘keywords’ on webpages to the keywords being searched. The new method now also takes things like phrasing, larger groupings of words and even sentence structure into account, delivering slightly skewed search results depending on what area of the searched topic the user appears to be most interested in.,

Friend or Foe?

The new Hummingbird algorithm has certainly affected the methods of SEO professionals. For starters, the reporting of Analytics data is different now, showing a greater degree of segmentation. Hummingbird has also had an effect on the way users search; and as the algorithm gets smarter and people become more accustomed to thinking about the phrasing they use when searching, the long-tail search queries people use are likely to become even more varied and diverse.

Overall, the effects of Hummingbird have been positive; certainly for websites and brands providing genuinely valuable user experiences. In fact, in many ways (for once) you could almost argue that Google were catching up with modern marketers this time around. With Hummingbird, Google are rewarding strong long-tail optimisation and the release/promotion of engaging and highly relevant, high quality content; all signals of targeted marketing efforts and therefore better user experiences.

Quite simply, Google have got better at rewarding better websites. So long as you stick to honest and transparent methods of promoting genuinely great content, Hummingbird will be your best friend. Hummingbirds drink half their body weight in nectar in a single day… Serve up the sweet stuff and Google will reward you.

Where are Google headed next?


OK, so that might be a bit of a leap. Though there is a definite shift toward robotics technology. In fact Google have recently made several moves which have positioned them as perhaps the world’s most promising robotics firms in existence; and let’s be honest, when Google try something new it is pretty rare that they disappoint the high expectations of the masses. Let me give you 3 facts and you can decide yourself:

1. Voice Search, a new/improved feature released with Hummingbird, allows searchers to use their microphone (desktop or mobile device) to give Google voice commands and tell it what to search for. This obviously ties in with the fact that Google is now more ‘semantic’ in it’s approach i.e. it is now better equipped to handle more ‘conversational’ queries by understanding context and sentence structure.

2. Google have released Glass, enabling them to research and improve computer-aided visual recognition of real-world objects. Glass is already one of the most advanced applications of this type of technology in the world. It already has voice control.

3. Google have bought 8 of the world’s most advanced robotics firms and many more acquisitions are expected to happen in the coming months. The companies already in tow specialise in humanoid robots, industrial robot arms, all-terrain military robots… you name it, Google own it. They’re not saying how much they’ve spent so far, or plan to for that matter, but we’re assured this is no hobby science project.

Incidentally, Andy Rubin is the man heading up the new robotics division at Google. He was the man behind the development of the Android smartphone platform. If robots are to be created for public, military or industrial use, then presumably wireless control, seamless device integration and well thought-out user-interfaces will all be paramount… so he does seem like a good hire if our assumptions are correct! Plus—given Google’s penchant for spot on monikers—the name ‘Android’ starts to take on extra meaning in this new perspective.

So, with the latest incarnation of their search engine containing one of the most advanced artificial intelligence (i.e. ‘learning’) algorithms ever created, the huge investments Google have made in robotics and visual recognition all of a sudden seem much less haphazard. Perhaps those home helpers from I, Robot are not such a wild idea after all!

Posted by Paul

Paul is our Head of Marketing and digital strategy specialist. A Google certified SEO expert and Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, he has worked on award-winning campaigns since 2003.

For help or advice with SEO since the Hummingbird algorithm was introduced, don’t hesitate to contact our experts. We can also talk to you about robots. Because we like robots.

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