Google BERT Update – What is it and how will it impact SEO?

Search intent has been one of the greatest puzzles in the world of search engines. To get a good grasp of what search intent is all about, Google has released its latest update – Google BERT.

Not so long ago, Google announced that they have developed a quantum computer that has been demonstrated to solve, in a matter of days, a problem that an “older” supercomputer would most likely take thousands of years to solve. Elsewhere, stories about robots taking our jobs abound, while machine learning, seems to be on everyone’s mind.

But the change is not always so visible. A few weeks ago, Google introduced us to something they called the most important update. It is characterised as a massive and the biggest step forward for search in the past five years, and one of the biggest steps forward in the history of search altogether. Yet, look and ask around in the SEO community and you’ll see very little that announces as much. Also, it is not yet very clear what Google’s BERT is targeting and how will the SEO landscape be influenced by this big update.

So, what is the BERT Algorithm and what does it mean anyway?

BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers and is a deep learning algorithm related to natural language processing. So, it’s clear why they call it BERT for short. At its core, Google uses this technology to better understand what’s known as natural language processing or NLP.

In simpler words, BERT is here to help Google understand the language and phrasing more like a human and less like a robot. BERT is used to teach Google’s search function to interpret the nuances and context of search queries, and that’s a very, very good thing for SEO writers.

We know Google can already understand synonyms, misspellings, and common phrases. Now, with BERT, Google is able to understand language nuances and idiosyncrasies in order to return even more relevant search results. BERT builds on RankBrain and the two work together to create a powerful AI capable of understanding language and context at near-human levels.

Everyone knows that RankBrain is Google’s AI for search queries. The good news is, the RankBrain system is not going anywhere – BERT adds more juice to the system, and folks across the world would get more tasty results for their searches. Around five years ago, Google launched the public into the world of RankBrain, a machine-learning artificial intelligence that processes search results. Although RankBrain is pretty much active, a little push (with the BERT algorithm) would help boost the user experience.

The introduction of RankBrain shows how Google is adjusting its search result process. Instead of focusing primarily on keywords, search results are determined by natural language processing techniques. For instance, when a user searches for “how to wear brown shoes,” the search result won’t just display a list of E-commerce websites with brown shoes, it would provide a comprehensive list of content containing tips and tricks on wearing brown shoes for various functions.

Also, BERT modifies this system to provide a more extensive result to the user – it’s more like the 2.0 evolution of RankBrain. The primary focus of the BERT technology is to help Google understand the search intent of the user.

Here’s the thing; RankBrain and BERT are separate systems. Any of the two systems can be used to process a search request, but it would largely depend on the complexity of the request.

Why is this update so important for Google?

According to Google, around 10% of all search queries are new – that means they are being searched for the very first time. Furthermore, the phrasing of search queries is growing closer and closer to real human communication, in part under the influence of technological advances like Voice Search. The statistics say that the proportion of Voice Searches will hit 50% within two years. Another factor is the increasing length of search queries, so today, around 70% of searches can be considered long-tail. People turn to Google with fully-formulated questions, and expect precise answers in a fraction of a second, and BERT now makes up a significant part of the technology that makes this possible.

How SEO Will Be Affected by BERT?

BERT will be applied on a query-by-query basis, affecting one in ten search queries on average. This still represents a massive number of results, which means businesses should be prepared to see significant shifts in rankings over the coming weeks. It will impact both organic results and featured snippets, altering current rankings to better fit with contextual relevance and user intent.

First of all, it’s important to understand that BERT analyses only search queries, not the content on a page. So, while there’s not much you can do to optimise for BERT directly, it does mean you should double-down on your efforts to create relevant, quality content. As Google gets better at understanding natural language and eliciting the actual meaning and context behind its many search queries, it will also get better at finding the pages that best fit those queries. This means that poorly-written, thin content likely won’t fit the bill. Instead, you should focus on creating content geared towards the actual questions your audience might be asking.

You need to create a dedicated FAQ section, focused not just on keyword density, but the quality answers. As far as featured snippets, marking up pages with FAQ, How-to, and Q&A schema is recommended for increasing your page’s likelihood of being picked up by BERT. Also, of note, you should keep in mind that because featured snippets are picked up quite often in voice search results, the introduction of BERT will likely have a big effect on voice search as well.

There is no simple answer to how to react to BERT. There aren’t any easy tactics that you can use to suddenly make your website rank better or to recuperate losses. Instead, it is important to bear in mind that you need to write your content and build your websites not just for algorithms, but for people: for your potential users and customers who will be visiting and interacting with your website.

How to Make Sure Your Site Is Ready for Google BERT?

Wondering how to optimize your SEO for Google BERT? Don’t.
Google has already told us it can’t be done. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do in the light of BERT to boost your SEO game.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Optimise for humans, not BERT

Great content is all about focusing on your human reader. With the release of BERT, Google is driving that home. BERT empowers the search engine to understand searches conducted using “natural language” rather than “keyword-ese” – the use of strings which don’t resemble human speech, but are designed to get Google to spit out the info that you need.

If you’re writing for humans, you’re already covered here, but if you’re still keyword stuffing like it’s 2009, it’s now time to make sure your content makes sense to people, not machines.

2. Continue E-A-T-ing!

EAT stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness – three elements of Google’s quality metrics for determining page rank.

Most of Google’s biggest algorithm updates have centred around addressing the SEO gaming which occurred in the late 2000s and early 2010s. It’s no longer possible to churn out hundreds or thousands of poorly written, but perfectly SEO-optimised articles. Google will simply push them down or even de-list the site altogether.

The rules of the SEO game haven’t changed with BERT. Now, it’s simply more likely that the helpful, quality content you’ve produced already will be even more effective in the search engine because the algorithm uses NLP.

3. Revisit How Your Site Captures Informational Searches

One of the biggest negative effects seen with BERT is a drop in organic search traffic. This suggests that your pages were ranking in searches that weren’t applicable to your niche. BERT is designed to return more relevant searches to its users.

So, here’s what you need to do:

  • Identify what keywords or pages have stopped performing as well
  •  Search those keywords and see what sort of other content appears alongside (or instead of) yours. You may find it has changed
  •  Tweak your content to match the content that ranks or add more content which reflects these changes
  • It may be worth it to connect with a content strategist to discover the best options for content adjustment.

4. Avoid the Keyword Superstitions Currently Everywhere

Almost as soon as BERT was announced, SEO gurus sprang into action to dispense advice on how BERT is changing the landscape of SEO.

Some of the advice included:

  • Keyword density will become less important
  • Stop words are now vital
  • Long-tail keywords will become more important than short-tail keywords
  • BERT makes the “conversational level” of content a quality metric

With that said, don’t listen to anyone who claims they have the ultimate BERT SEO optimisation strategy. BERT doesn’t change any rules around SEO.

One neat thing about BERT is that it will make Featured Snippets much more valuable. Rolled out way back in 2014, they provide a way to quickly browse a site’s content. Now, even if you’re not the top-ranked page in results, there’s a chance you might get featured in the coveted “position zero” if nobody above you is optimised. It’s the same if you’re more relevant than other results based on the use of transformer words.

You can’t create your own featured snippets, but you can do a few things to increase the likelihood that your site will appear as one (and thus at the top of the page):

  • Organize your content in lists. Google can create an outline
  • Sum up your answer to a question in 40 to 50 words. Google will create a paragraph
  • Use tables to display data
  • Make more video content

There is no simple answer on how to react to BERT. There aren’t any easy tactics that you can use to suddenly make your website rank better or to recuperate losses. Instead, it is important to bear in mind that you need to write your content and build your websites not just for algorithms, but for people: for your potential users and customers who will be visiting and interacting with your website. There is nothing to worry about because this update is not focused on any sort of penalisation. Instead, it’s focused on understanding search intent better.

Conclusion

Although Google BERT caused quite a splash, it’s not the game-changing event that we’ve come to expect when Google claims something is the “biggest update in years.” Google BERT is just the latest search innovation put into place to make Google more useful for everybody. By being able to understand contextual words such as “for” or “to,” we can now all get our fingers on information faster and easier.

BERT isn’t a massive surprise since Google has been continuously putting out updates that relate to a much better search experience for the users. Their recent updates all focus on one thing: delivering useful, informative, authoritative, expertly-curated, and accurate information/answers to the users.

Keep in mind that BERT is not yet applied to foreign search markets aside from the Featured Snippet cards. However, as time goes by, there is no reason for Google to not apply it to foreign language search markets.

Yes, the BERT algorithm is designed to benefit the searcher, but it doesn’t mean that site ranking won’t be affected by the system.

A sure proof way of getting the most out of the BERT algorithm is to monitor your ranking in the coming months. If you notice any drop-in search ranking, then you’ve got to re-evaluate your content and make sure it matches the search content.