The Sex-Life of the Hummingbird

27 September 2013

On the television show My Own Worst Enemy, there was once a reference to the sexual position “the hummingbird.” Overnight, searches for “hummingbird sex position” went from zero to considerable as people tried to find out just what it was. Clearly they felt it might spice something up in their lives, but it turns out that it doesn’t exist. It was made up for the show.

Hummingbird sex position

You have may have heard that Google has overhauled its search algorithm and released a new version, which it has called Hummingbird. You can read more about that here, here, here and here.

Furthermore, we noted strong growth in “(not provided)” searches a few weeks ago. Google have also switched the default search mode to secure search in the last few days. This means that most search traffic from Google now doesn’t pass keyword data to Analytics software.

Consequently, a number of people in the SEO industry are in panic mode. Is this finally the “Death of SEOTM”?

Erm, no! That’s all been made up for the clicks. Just like the hummingbird sex position.

I guess the above is a contender for laboured intro of the month, but admit it, I had you hooked at “sex position”, didn’t I?

So what does the Hummingbird update really mean for SEO?

Well, first of all there are a number of reasons why Google has switched to Hummingbird.

Firstly, Google has been overhauling its internal technology, for example moving from MySQL to MariaDB. This has presumably been done to improve speed and responsiveness, but isn’t limited to search – all of Google is migrating.

However, the bigger driver for change is the way the web is evolving, and how Google wants to be at the heart of that.

The key to being at the heart of the web is to become integral to the desirable user experience. Apple have built their recent fortune on providing outstanding user experience. People desire Apple products because they are synonymous with chic, desirability and class. People identify with that and consequently Apple have set the standard for smartphones and tablets to date.

But as technology progresses, Google has a distinct advantage, aside from the significant improvements in its own Android mobile OS. Google has data about people. Lots of data. Google knows all about you, and your penchant for looking up sexual positions after hearing about them on American TV shows. Google almost certainly knows where you live, and probably where you work. It knows what things you like, and what things you don’t.

Why does it know these things? Well, because you keep telling it. Use an Android phone, and Google learns about where you are when you have it? Use an iPhone with Google services and likewise. It’s not just Google, of course, any app provider that accesses location data can figure out your location. Google, though, gets so much more data – you search it for things you want to know, you might use it for email, you might have a Google Plus account, you might have a YouTube account – the list goes on. Google. Knows. You.

Big Brother? Well, it is reasonable to have that worry, but Google is more like a virtual Tesco Clubcard or Nectar Points, both of which collect data about what you buy and where you shop to personalise offers and build some loyalty. Few people worry about their privacy from a Tesco Clubcard – they just focus on the benefits.

Are there benefits to Google knowing so much about you? This is where the Hummingbird algorithm will come into its own. Google claim it currently affects about 90% of searches, but that this is expected to grow.

What is more interesting is the kinds of searches it is designed to affect.

Google is aiming to integrate itself with daily life beyond the PC. How you interact with your phone or TV (and who knows, perhaps in the future with your car, fridge or washing machine) is evolving. Smartphones empower people to get information more quickly on the move; smart TV’s turn the concept of a television into an Internet-enabled entertainment centre; products such as Google Glass provide new and exciting ways to interact with the world around us.

Google is aiming to become the way we interact with the world. It wants to be our user experience of life. If Google Glass is a product of that desire, search is the service that drives it. Hummingbird is a move towards realising that dream.

Voice activated searches on Android devices tend to be more conversational than traditional typed searches. “Show me pictures of the Scott Monument”, “How tall is it?” “When was it built?” These kinds of searches will become more common.

Coupled to this, Google Now will become further integrated with other Google services and user interfaces, pushing information you are interested in or need to know at you at the time you need to know it.

By combining what it knows about you to how quickly it can harvest information about the world is what will make Google useful in the future.
Some of this is already evident in Hummingbird.

For example, a search for “supermarkets near work” lists (for me) those near Storm ID. That search string doesn’t mention Storm ID at all. In the past it would have been too ambiguous to get me really helpful answers, but not now.

Supermarkets near work

Not exciting enough? OK, it works for pubs, too!

Pubs near work

What this means is that Google is serving search results specifically for me, based on things about me that might be too private for me to want to share. Where this level of personalisation in search might end is anyone’s guess.

“Google, what the hell did I do last night?” There are days where you might not want to see those search results!

Given this level of personalisation, it is reasonable to consider why people might have concerns about the amount Google knows about you. But imagine if search phrases were passed to website owners who only appeared in your search because of your private circumstances. Your private data could begin to leak to third parties as verbose searches give away just a bit more than you intended.

Obviously, I’m thinking of more subtle searches than “where’s convenient for getting rid of a body?” The point is, lots of subtle searches over a long time can leak quite a lot of data. Google should have some kind of responsibility to protect the data it holds about you from becoming public.

In the past, searches and Internet usage was much more uniform and anonymous. It was possible to get information about a user, but it wasn’t easy. Personalising search so dramatically would, in theory, make it much easier. “Not provided” is an attempt to overcome that. At least that is what Google want us to believe.

Many SEO industry peers don’t buy that, though. They say, if keyword data is so private, why is it that it is not hidden from advertisers – they see keyword searches. This is true, but it is not the whole story.

Adwords search ranking is not directly influenced by your circumstances, other than things that have been for some time, such as your geographic location. Adwords doesn’t know where you work. It knows you are searching in Leith. Or London. Or Lagos. It knows who you are, potentially, and might show you Google+ ad extensions, but it doesn’t change whether or not is shows you an ad based on who you are – just on what a company has bid for, and it’s relevance to your search.
The searches above for “pubs near work” and “supermarkets near work” have no ads on them. In the future, I’m sure it will be possible to advertise on personalised searches, but I expect matched search query data may begin to have a similar issue to (not provided).

Google has personalised search to some degree for a long time. Hummingbird is moving to make that the norm for much more. I expect that it will make more and more difference to the way we see search results, and the way in which they are pushed to us through different devices.

Imagine a driverless web enabled car that knew when it was running out of fuel, and could enquire where the cheapest nearby place to refuel would be. Imagine a fridge that knew how quickly you typically got through milk, and could search for a delivery service for you when you would need some. Or perhaps it instructed the car to get some from the petrol station. Hummingbird is just one step enabling the Internet of tomorrow.


Is that a long beak, or are you just pleased to see me?

Does that mean SEO is dead? Of course not! Google needs to understand even more about the world to classify it into those things that are relevant for some searches and those things that are not. The real job of SEO if making sure your website, or event, or location, or venue, or celebrity, or gig, or team or whatever is in the mix.

SEO is alive and well more than ever. It is just the toolkit that changes.

In his book “How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes”, Will Guppy added a footnote, saying simply, “Much still remains to be learned about his sex life because the Hummingbird is quicker than the eye.” It seems much is still to be learned about the Hummingbird algorithm too!




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