Why Google’s “Hummingbird” Update Is A Big Deal

Written by: Drew Lyon   Austin, Texas

Posted on: October 15, 2013

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On September 26th Google announced “Hummingbird,” the single most fundamental change to how their search engine works ever. Google looks the same, feels the same, but underneath the surface, in the way they process search queries, it is very different indeed.

Now I should point out that Google doesn’t make public the technical details of their search ranking algorithm and most of what we know about Hummingbird thus far—which had already been live for a month before they announced it—is based on aspirational statements made by Google. Google is the one hyping the significance of this change, but with that said, we tend to agree with them.

The reason Google calls Hummingbird the biggest change ever is because they estimate it will affect around 90% of all searches. 90%!? So you should be seeing dramatically different search results then, right? Not necessarily, not yet.

Most people are still conditioned to search Google by keyword or short phrase. In other words, we speak to Google the way we would a robot. I wouldn’t walk up to a librarian and blurt out “Rosa Parks,” but that’s my primary method of communication with Google. It saves me keystrokes and cuts right to the point. But what if I want to ask Google something more personal or complex? Should I talk in robot speech or more natural language?

Things like Siri and Google voice search are starting to change how we see our devices. We’re being reconditioned to treat phones less like robots and more like personal assistants. Siri has even become famous for her snarky, humanizing responses. My favorite is her opinion on science fiction movies involving artificial intelligence:

All joking aside, you say “Wake me up at 6am” to your smartphone and it sets an alarm. You say “Give me directions to the airport” and your phone pulls up the navigation app and loads in directions. It can be frustrating when these natural language commands don’t produce the result you were looking for, but they’re getting better all the time. And we’re getting better at communicating with them.

In that regard, Hummingbird is very much ahead of the curve. As I said earlier, it’s a change in the way Google processes queries. Or more specifically, it’s that Google wants to understand user intent, not just the individual words we search for. A simplified example would be a search query that includes the word “nearby.” Nearby what? Well, assuming Google knows your location, nearby you.

Knowing contextual information about the person searching (location, past searches, friend interests) is the second major component of Hummingbird. Google developed Google Now for mobile devices as a way to deliver personalized information to users before they search for it, which is an ambitious, albeit potentially risky strategy.

That’s because some people find blatantly targeted information (or even worse, targeted ads) to be creepy. But generally, if it works well and is seamless, users learn to embrace personalization. By introducing Hummingbird now, Google is in position to handle the conversation and contextual search commands we are getting more and more comfortable giving our inanimate devices. This is the future of search, as Google sees it, as we see it.

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