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The Story of Google Update Hummingbird

Well, they did it again – big G has gone and made another major update to the search algorithm which may be impacting you & your clients, and yet –up until today– Google has been unwilling to confirm or provide any details about it whatsoever. This ‘secret’ Google Algorithm Change took place sometime in mid-August and then with various smaller changes following all the way into Mid-September. While Google took their time in confirming this one — it was abundantly clear to folks watching their keyword ranks that something major was going on.

Just today, Google announced a sweeping Algorithm change which will be impacting 90% of searches — and guess what? They said it has already been rolled out for several weeks! Read on to learn the story of how Google Update Hummingbird was rolled out, how you can see this evidence for yourself in your keyword rank data, and – most importantly – what it means for you/your clients.

Warning Bells — High SERP Volatility

If you keep a finger on the SEO pulse, then you likely have heard that all of the standard SEO Keyword Tools, and Search Marketing News sites, that monitor for SERP (Search Engine Results Page) volatility all noticed the same thing — something happened on August 21st. There was a lot of volatility in SERPs – which pretty much tells us that there was an update to the algorithm – and yet Google has not made a comment about it and has let this Algo Update go ‘unconfirmed’ for the time being.

Red Alert — Serious Rank Fluctuations in High Quality Sites

Knowing the the above, when I noticed some odd movement in the rankings for one of my clients, I realized that this update may have been pretty substantial. Here’s what set off the alarm for me– here is the rank over-time report for one of the affected terms for one of my clients.

Google Algorithm Change August 2013 Evidence Pic 1

For a little context on the rankings to right — this is a domain with:

  • low 70’s for Domain Authority
  • around 25k backlinks
  • a bit under 1 Million Unique Visitors per month

— so this is a pretty well trafficked site with a history to it.

This is NOT the kind of domain that would typically be affected by any Google Penguin/Panda related updates — this is a quality site here that is getting knocked down in the rankings. Here is another screenshot, of a different keyword for the same site, showing a similar trend. Note that the dashes ‘-‘ represent a search rank that is outside of the top 100! Holy cow!

The alarms continued…SERP volatility continues into September

The volatility didn’t stop there. Search rankings were sent in a few more swings, up and down, before seeming to ‘settle at a new equilibirum point’ in mid-september. None of the subsequent swings were as severe as the mid-August one but they still were noticeable in the data.

What Was The Trend?

Though Google has been tight lipped about this one, the word is that Google Update ‘Hummingbird’ focused on the search engines ability to parse questions, and not just to parse sentences on a word-by-word basis. A subtle change, and yet Google has reported that this change will be affecting 90% of searches! Yowza!

What I saw a lot of was drops in ‘nonbranded’/auxilliary traffic. I went through several sites worth of keyword rank reports and noticed this throughout, it was always ‘auxilliary’ nonbranded terms that were impacted by this. The core terms typically rose (like the terms on your homepage), but it was some of those keywords that were more of a stretch that seemed to be negatively impacted from what I have seen. This kind of jives with what Google has said about this update, that it tried to make the engine systematically better at understanding questions and presenting SERPs which better answer those questions.

What Google Update ‘Hummingbird’ Means For Your Clients

Be on the look out for this type of thing with your clients. If you see a huge drop in the rankings for a certain keyword, even on quality sites, then I would investigate it’s change-over-time to see if it could have been this mysterious ‘Unconfirmed’ Algo update that took place sometime in mid-late August/early September — which we now know was the secret release of this Hummingbird Update.

Also – on the flipside – double-check to see if you/your client was a big winner in this algo update. For me, in this particular clients case, we lost serious ground in some keywords and then gained serious ground in others so on the NET this update may not have had as much of an impact as it seemed at first glance. Make sure you look into both sides of this update before trying to explain the rank fluctuations to client – so you really can tell the whole story.

Hat-tip Techcrunch for breaking news on this one. We all knew a major update happened, but didn’t know it’s name till today!