Every major update to the Google algorithm has meant a drastic ensuing change for web developers everywhere. Google Panda brought in new penalties for designing content for search engines rather than readers. Shortly thereafter, Google Penguin closed some of the more egregious SEO loopholes that allowed developers to rank well while designing their site for search engines alone. Cumulatively, these changes allow for steady incremental improvement in the quality of Google search results.

A Challenger to Keyword Searches

For the past decade or so, Internet users have become intimately familiar with keyword-based searching. Succinct keyword searches like “best kayaks Kauai” make perfect sense when you’re searching with a standard alphanumeric keyboard; and they tend to produce better results in search engines because they’re easier for an algorithm to make sense out of.

But the explosive growth of mobile browsing has started to fundamentally change the way many people access the Internet. Because smartphones and tablets are fitted with high quality microphones and voice recognition software has reached a point of brilliant competency, the demand for verbal search engine inquiries is quickly rising. If the excitement Apple managed to stir up with Siri is any indication, consumers are more than eager for verbal searching.

But there’s one problem: when people perform verbal searches, they have to audibly speak their question. Furthermore, unlike with an alphanumeric keyboard, keyword-based searching isn’t nearly as intuitive or acceptable. As a result, when people verbalize their inquiries they’re often quite verbose, and our “best kayaks Kauai” search becomes “Where can I find the best Kayak dealer in Kauai?”

The Hummingbird Solution

Rather than ask that everyone get comfortable performing awkward keyword-driven verbal searches, Google has decided to expand its abilities to figure out what people are saying when they provide these long verbose inquiries. Specifically, this means being able to determine the intended meaning out of the many potential meanings with a better understanding of the context clues found in natural language.

Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that these improvements may also be a serious boon for AdSense, since prior to Hummingbird, Google couldn’t provide advertisements for many of the more wordy queries it received because it couldn’t make enough sense of them.

To put it simply, just like with Penguin and Panda, Hummingbird aims to improve the overall quality of the end user experience by increasing the probability that the user will find exactly what he or she is looking for. Where before Google only had a primitive capability to understand verbose inquiries, Hummingbird represents the first of many steps towards improving those capabilities.

What Does This Mean for Developers?

Unlike Penguin and Panda, Hummingbird hasn’t meant an overnight shift in search engine rankings; it hasn’t been felt as immediately or as drastically as other major Google updates. This is largely because Hummingbird isn’t designed to punish you for providing poor user experiences, but rather to enable you to provide better ones. Because few (if any) of pre-Hummingbird era sites were optimized for verbal searching, few sites were immediately affected by the change.

So how do you design for the Hummingbird era? There are really only two things to know. The first is the fact that enabling more verbose inquires means that Google is in effect creating an incentive for sites to orient their content to meet a highly specific demand. When people head to a search engine, they’ve got a specific problem and want an equally specific solution. Sites that are able to provide specific solutions to these more verbose queries are going to be more visible than sites that don’t.

The second thing to know is that the importance of semantic relevance is increasing. Although sites are not currently optimized for these conversational queries, the fact that this type of content is now able to influence your page rank means it’s now becoming very valuable. Semantic relevance also stands to become more valuable in the future as new releases are almost inevitably added to help extend Hummingbird-type abilities even further. Consequently, you can expect developers to start shifting their content towards a more conversational tone.