Head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) are an aggressive, genetically complex and difficult to treat group of cancers. In lieu of truly effective targeted therapies, surgery and radiotherapy represent the primary treatment options for most patients. But these treatments are associated with significant morbidity and a reduction in quality of life. Resistance to both radiotherapy and the only available targeted therapy, and subsequent relapse are common. Research has therefore focussed on identifying biomarkers to stratify patients into clinically meaningful groups and to develop more effective targeted therapies. However, as we are now discovering, the poor response to therapy and aggressive nature of HNSCCs is not only affected by the complex alterations in intracellular signalling pathways but is also heavily influenced by the behaviour of the extracellular microenvironment. The HNSCC tumour landscape is an environment permissive of these tumours' aggressive nature, fostered by the actions of the immune system, the response to tumour hypoxia and the influence of the microbiome. Solving these challenges now rests on expanding our knowledge of these areas, in parallel with a greater understanding of the molecular biology of HNSCC subtypes. This update aims to build on our earlier 2014 review by bringing up to date our understanding of the molecular biology of HNSCCs and provide insights into areas of ongoing research and perspectives for the future.