In the past 12 months Google has pushed out "updates" to their algorithm around 620 times.
Among these were refreshes to Panda and Penguin which essentially helped us because it drops out spammy, low quality and downright badly SEO'd sites from the index.
We align our principles with that of Google, and make sure what we are pushing for aligns with their overall goals. We play the long-game, not the short game - and it pays off in great measure.
Crouching Panda, Hidden Hummingbird
"Panda" was an algorithm update that was enacted in 2011 to essentially find low-quality content sites, directories and things of that nature and to discredit them essentially in the ranking results.
"Penguin" was a "webspam" update that was meant to find and deem links positively or negatively, depending upon where the links were coming from, where they were going to, what connotation they had, what anchor text they were using, if they were from relevant sites, if they were from trusted domains, if they were from a related type of domain etc.
Both of these were essentially "Snap on" parts to the algorithm.
They went on the side of the algorithm and bolstered it to make it more effective. The overall algorithm though was still called "Pagerank" the algorithm that Google started out with and made modifications to over time. The current algorithm is a long-stride from the original "Pagerank" algorithm but it was essentially still the same thing at it's core, just honed and better focused.
What "Hummingbird" Is
"Hummingbird" was Google's newest and most extreme update-to-date. With Hummingbird Google literally replaced the "Pagerank" algorithm. It's brand new. Penguin and Panda are still bolt-ons to Hummingbird, so it's not the case that they were baked into this algorithm, they are still operating in their own medium.
Think about Hummingbird as a new 454 Big Block V8 Engine. Pagerank was a 350. Google essentially took out their old "engine" and put in a whole new, big and improved with more power, more focus, far faster, they made an even swap. Think about Penguin and Panda as bolt ons to that.
Penguin being an Air Intake, making Google's listings far more efficient by cleaning out the spam and loading it with quality content. Panda being a good exhaust system, pushing out better content by siphoning out the old, less-quality content.
Here is an animated evolution of Google's Algorithm from the Moz Blog as they explained the difference of Hummingbird to Panda and Penguin
Google's Goals with Hummingbird
With Hummingbird Google has a few goals. Though Google has been a little bit clouded about this change, they've let us in on a few details.
1. Hummingbird will focus on long-tail content - no longer focusing on the short-form queries that are made up of 1-2 words, instead focusing on long-tail searches like 1-7 word searchs that could be targeted with blog posts and direct question answering via targeted content.
2. Hummingbird has exceptional abilities at "speech-like" queries - meaning searches in sequences as you would talk to Siri, or more "ask jeeves" style, instead of 1-3 keyword queries. See Search Engine Land's explanation of Google's "Conversational Search"
3. Hummingbird will be taking more effect of "author" authorities
4. Hummingbird is faster at rendering content and representing it - focusing on speed and precision more than their previous engine (seeing as the old engine was built in 1998 and has only been "amended" since then)
What to do now with Hummingbird
Here are the things you need to do now that will make you succeed in SEO with Hummingbird in place:
1. Write on your blog - gather questions from your community and customer base, answer their questions in blog posts, be direct about topics, provide content that helps your customer.
2. Be truthful and forthcoming with your content - don't be light with your content, Google focuses on speed and efficiency and users don't like being duped. If you promise to answer the question of a topic, do it, as quickly and simply as possible, provide all the information on that subject you can, but make sure it's actionable. Google wants people to get to answers and get what they need as quickly as possible. That's one reason why page-speed is such a massive ranking factor. If customers get to your information, see it's not what they need and bounce from your page, that will genuinely hurt your rankings and your site's authority within Google's index.
3. Don't focus on Google - focus on users, customers, consumers, the people who need information and what your user's ultimate issues are. Google is focusing on their users and trying to get the best content for those users. Don't focus on what Google is doing, focus on what Google is focusing on - the users. Focusing on Google will keep you in habits of "gaming the system" which isn't the goal. First off Google's team is made up of rocket scientists. They will figure you out and you will either get an automated penalty or even a manual penalty, which is extremely hard to come back from.
4. Don't focus on link building - focus on earning links through your content and the questions you answer. This is where the real money lies. Promote your content on social spheres and to your community, but don't go out begging for links from spammy directories and things of that nature. Hummingbird might not be a webspam update, but it sure as hell will work faster and in better cooperation with their other webspam algorithms - so don't be a spammy mc-spammerson.
5. Utilize Google+ - the fastest way to get your content published in Google's SERPs now is through Google+! Syndicate your content to publish to Google+ whenever you publish to your blog etc. Be alive in communities related to you, your local community or your business vertical. Anyone who is signed in to Google and has +1'd your content, your profile, your page, anything you've done on Google+ will be 10x more likely to see your content when they search for any query related to your content. Even if they haven't +1'd your content, if their friend has +1'd your content, Google will represent your content to them essentially saying that their friend vouched for it.
The ease of community building on Google+ is vast, it's like Twitter and Facebook put together in their scopes, tied by rich communities and good linking / business pages. Twitter allows you to follow people without being friends and discover like-content with #hashtags, Facebook allows you to interact and post on a more elaborate scale than 140 characters and engage in related groups - Google+ does all of this, and makes you show up better in organic searches the more you use it. It's a hugewin-hugewin if you take advantage of it.
6. Structure your content well - this is the main form of what the barebones of "SEO" has become, structuring your content in the correct ways and focusing on the right terms to gain you targeted organic results. The thing is, this is only part of the battle. Putting out good content and putting out targeted content are two completely different things. Both need to be worked in with absolute cohesion to be effective. This is where the real SEO comes in.
Structuring your site is beyond important, but once that is done there is still a ton more that us SEO's have to focus on in terms of structuring your content to align with your goals. All of the age-old things still matter - title tags, meta descriptions, h1's, URLs, categories, site architecture, link architecture, link profiles, and more have been added. Now you need to worry about Google Authorship, which will be a big factor in Hummingbird within the next year. Essentially Google's ability to determine the worth of a piece of content based on who wrote it, where it was written, how influential the writer is in that niche, what other content that writer has published, what other places that writer is contributing etc.
Another is schema markup. Showing the best usability data for your site straight from the SERPs. Essentially this will just tell the user what reviews are had on your products, who wrote the post, where your business is located etc. This all goes into structuring your content. The better you structure your content, the faster Google knows what you're all about, the better you rank, the faster you have users coming to your site.
7. Focus on the long-tail - questions and answers, the long searches that feel far more organic than "keyword + location." This kind of focus will get you far more overall search visits, links and position from Google's index. It's where Google's focus is heading and it's where we need to be.
If you have any questions or concerns you can always shoot me a tweet or email too! There is a ton of information in hummingbird, incase I didn't round all the bases for you!