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Tue Dec 03 2019

What Is The Google BERT Update And How Will It Impact SEO?

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Google has made extensive modifications to its search engine since the introduction of RankBrain over five years ago. As such, the latest Google BERT update is set to impact one out of 10 queries, changing pages’ positions in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

It is only applicable to English language queries for now, but will also start working for other languages in the future.

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There’s a lot of commotion and mystery around this new BERT update and the challenge is that you can’t really optimise for it (more on that later).

What Exactly Is BERT?

BERT, which stands for ‘Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers,’ is essentially a pre-trained, unsupervised Natural Language Processing (NLP) model or a ‘deep learning algorithm.’

As such, it is being applauded as the next big thing because it is deeply bidirectional – as in it looks at the words and their context to have a better understanding of the language. In simple words, it can help discern the meaning of search queries more effectively. 

For example, in the phrases, ‘eight to six’ and ‘quarter to six,’ the middle word ‘to’ has entirely different uses – which people understand – but search engines typically don’t. 

But with BERT, Google has gained the ability to understand these simple yet powerful nuances and deliver more relevant results, thus solidifying its dominance as a leading search engine.


How Does The Google BERT Algorithm Affect SEO?

It’s interesting to learn that BERT analyses search queries being generated by users; it does not concern itself with the content on the pages being served. 

So the only way to make sure that your website survives this latest development is by confirming that you are serving content that is relevant to user intent. In short, increase your efforts to create relevant, quality content that BERT can relate to the user’s queries. 

Google is undeniably getting better at understanding the natural use of language and the actual meaning behind search requests; it will soon also become better at finding pages that best answer those queries. 

SERPs are an ever-evolving landscape, making it critical for modern businesses to keep up with their SEO efforts to ensure that their websites are always compliant with the search engine’s needs.

So, focus on creating a variety of content that answers actual questions. If the focus of your page or content is weak, even humans will have trouble understanding the point of it; and if they can’t get it then BERT won’t serve it – it’s as simple as that. 

BERT for Featured Snippets

The Google BERT update has so far been rolled out for organic US search results and it hasn’t been activated for other languages and countries, including Australia. Google’s Search Liaison Officer, Danny Sullivan, clarified that BERT’s release in the index of other countries would take place gradually and has no fixed timeline.

But there is one BERT-powered search feature that is available in 25 different languages. ‘Featured Snippets’ are results that appear above organic search results and include a list, table or detailed text that BERT is already affecting.

It is also interesting to note here that featured snippets are also displayed as a result of voice search, so chances are that BERT also has a considerable impact on this developing trend as well. 

If you want your website to be picked up by Google, work on creating featured snippets, mark up pages, FAQ sections, how-to guides and Q&A schema. 

Keywords vs. Search Intent

Google has been trying to achieve this for a while now: getting content marketers to optimise for keywords with search intent. In fact, instead of simply looking at keyword ranking, you should be working on ranking content that is relevant to your target customers’ needs.

This strategy is older than BERT, but it looks like it will continue increasing in importance in the coming years. BERT is more interested in ranking how-to articles because these are closer to the search intent of users. So don’t write long-winding, generic pages that don’t provide a lot of value; instead, create hard-hitting, fact-filled valuable copies that offer answers. 

Additionally, in the pre-BERT era, a generic website would be enough. But now Google understands that a user searching for ‘how to get home financing in Melbourne’ is closer to applying for a loan than someone looking for ‘bank loans.’ 

Is your website delivering the content you need to cater to such an exact search query?

So Why Don’t We Need To Optimise For BERT?

Since Google has confirmed that there really isn’t anything we can do to optimise for BERT, there is nothing to ‘prepare for’ or ‘respond to’ – and there is a very good reason for that. 

Algorithm updates typically reward or penalise specific sites that follow or don’t follow SEO guidelines – and that fear of being penalised explains our instinct to look to do something to protect our website as a result of the new roll-out.

But Google didn’t create BERT to punish anyone; it’s merely an effort to get better at what it does.

In case your website experienced a downfall in rankings, it’s because previously you were getting traffic for queries that didn’t fit the context of your site. It was low-quality traffic at that, so it’s not as big of a loss as it seems right now – it is unlikely you were getting any benefit from that traffic anyway.

While there isn’t much you can do right now, keep your users in your mind when making content decisions for the future. Think about the questions and pain-points that bother them and then come up with ways to solve these issues with your expertise. 

Using keywords excessively and churning-out blog after blog with irrelevant, outdated content is no longer going to win you any favours with Google. 

In Conclusion

Google has called BERT “the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.” 

It is a massive breakthrough in the use of Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing – and it’s promising to revolutionise how the search engine delivers results. 

Do you want to understand what BERT means for your website and content strategy? Contact us today. 

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