Mobile phone users will be able to view apps privacy policies before downloading. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Google has tweaked its search algorithm in a major way. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Talk about a stealth operation. About a month ago, Google changed its search algorithm. It was done so quietly, and so smoothly, that no one detected anything new.

But the move represents a big change in search — akin to replacing the engine of a 1950s car, said Danny Sullivan of industry blog Search Engine Land.

“It’s fair to say the general public seemed not to have noticed that Google ripped out its engine while driving down the road and replaced it with something else.”

Google said it made the change because users are asking longer and more complex questions and are searching more often on mobile phones with voice search.

The new algorithm is called Hummingbird, because it’s precise and fast, says Google. Previously — since 1998, as Google just celebrated its 15th birthday —  the search giant matched keywords in a query to the same words on Web pages. Hummingbird represents a shift to understanding the meaning of phrases in a query, and shows Web pages that more accurately match that meaning.

Sullivan’s FAQ spells out many of the details of Hummingbird’s capabilities. Among them:

In particular, Google said that Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.

Does this mean SEO is dead?

No, SEO is not yet again dead. In fact, Google’s saying there’s nothing new or different SEOs or publishers need to worry about. Guidance remains the same, it says: Have original, high-quality content. Signals that have been important in the past remain important; Hummingbird just allows Google to process them in new and hopefully better ways.

What’s next? At the Google 15-year celebration, Amit Singhal, senior VP for search, said Google will keep reinventing itself to give you a simple, more intuitive experience. At some point, a Google search will answer your questions, have a conversation in a natural way, and even anticipate what you might want to know.

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