If you’re tapped in to the SEO-verse, you’ve probably noticed some commotion in the past couple of weeks. On September 26, Google announced the birth of Hummingbird, a major update to its search algorithm. Hummingbird is perhaps Google’s most significant update since 2001, and was thought to replace all previous algorithm tweaks, like Panda and Penguin. Then on October 4, another update to Penguin rolled out. Huh?

What the heck is Hummingbird? What did it do to poor Penguin and Panda? And what does it all mean for your SEO strategy? Allow me to explain.

First off, it’s probably time to stop losing our minds every time Google releases an update. The company actually changes its search algorithm between 500-600 times per year—and we almost never know the difference. Developers following SEO best practices, in particular, should rarely take a turn for the worse after an algorithm change.

I choose you, Hummingbird

When an update is major enough to affect a significant percentage of searches, however, Google will make an announcement—usually in the form of a tweet from Matt Cutts. But Hummingbird got way more than 140 characters to declare its arrival. Hummingbird was announced at Google’s 15th birthday party—but in fact, it had already been active for more than a month without anyone knowing.

Google’s search wizards didn’t release much detail about how Hummingbird actually works. But we do know that it’s a response to our shifting reliance on search: more users are speaking questions into their smartphones (“Where can I get Chinese food nearby?”) rather than browsing at their desks.

Hummingbird is geared toward “conversational search” (also called “semantic” or “entity” search)—responding to full questions rather than random strings of keywords. It’s designed to be better than ever at sorting out irrelevant stuff—and giving users the answers they need, as quickly as possible.

What about earlier algorithm updates?

As I’ve explained before, Google’s Panda and Penguin updates were built weed out to low-quality and spam-filled sites, respectively. So did Hummingbird’s razor-sharp beak and motor-fast wings tear cuddly Panda and Penguin to shreds? Hardly.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land explains it this way: think of Google search like a car engine. It might be high-quality, but over years of use, it will simply become outdated. Hummingbird is like a brand-new engine. Penguin and Panda, in contrast, are like an oil filter and a fresh batch of coolant: they still help the car run its best. But they can be swapped out easily without affecting the whole system.

That means we can still expect to see Panda and Penguin updates, even with Hummingbird now in place. So no, you’re not suddenly off the hook if you’ve been using black-hat tactics—you’ll still be penalized for tricks like spammy backlinks. (Penguin 2.1, released October 4, particularly zeroed in on this issue.)

What’s an SEO to do?

We don’t know much yet about how Hummingbird actually works. So it’s hard to say how to make the most of it. Because Hummingbird seems to favor content written as answers to potential search queries, it might be tempting to frame every page title in the form of a question. Eric Ward, also at Search Engine Land, cautions against this—as past updates have taught us, there are consequences for going overboard or trying to game the system. He does offer a few tips for how you might use Hummingbird to your advantage and integrate it naturally into your site.

Above all, there doesn’t seem to be much cause for concern. As Google’s been telling us for years now, we should stop obsessing over the algorithm’s particulars. Instead, create awesome content that’s helpful to users, and traffic will follow.

Does your site match up to Google’s latest guidelines? Give Atomic a call, and we’ll get you up to speed.

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