Google’s BERT Update — Google’s Quest for Natural Language Understanding

BERT Update
Category: SEO

The BERT Update – What You Need to Know

In late October 2019, Google launched a major new update in the way they are handling organic search results: ‘BERT’. Google has called this update, “the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.”

This update is fundamentally focused on helping Google better understand natural language. Specifically, it is Google’s attempt to better understand and process the context, meaning, and intent of keywords & search queries. All of this is so that Google can serve the most relevant results possible.

Because this is such a big update with far-reaching effects for websites across the internet, we thought we would offer up Magnetika’s take on the latest update, as well as thoughts on what you can do for your site in light of the changes.

Quick Overview – What is BERT?

BERT (AKA: Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) is designed to help machines (i.e. search engine crawlers) better understand the nuances of natural language.

At its core, what BERT is trying to do is close the gap between what Google can understand and the intent behind what humans actually want, as represented by what they say and write (i.e. search queries).

In other words, Google is trying to better understand the context, nuance, and subtle implications of organic searches. Here is how they put it:

“These improvements are oriented around improving language understanding, particularly for more natural language/conversational queries, as BERT is able to help Search better understand the nuance and context of words in Searches and better match those queries with helpful results.

Particularly for longer, more conversational queries, or searches where prepositions like “for” and “to” matter a lot to the meaning. Search will be able to understand the context of the words in your query. You can search in a way that feels natural for you.”

In terms of examples of this, Google included several in their helpful blog post about the update. But perhaps the clearest is for someone who conducted a search for “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa.”

As humans, you and I can intuitively tell that the person doing this search is a Brazilian, who is trying to figure out the visa requirements for entry to the US. However, in a pre-BERT world, Google wouldn’t know that. Their search results would have been centered on US citizens traveling to Brazil, not the other way around.

However, thanks to BERT, Google is now ‘smart’ enough to understand the nuances of the query. As a result, the new search results are Brazilain-focused, now showing information about getting a visa to the US if you are a Brazilian traveler.

The point is, the whole thing is very much focused on searcher intent.  That is, Google has always tried to understand with math what we as humans already know intuitively (e.g. the intent of queries, which web pages give best results, etc). So, this is a BIG leap forward in being able to do that, with an intense focus on the nuances of language to do it.

More BERT Info – A Few Other Important Highlights

  • Google launched BERT the week of October 20th.

  • BERT will impact 1 in 10 of all search queries – a BIG number!

  • This is the biggest change in search since Google released RankBrain in 2015.

  • We expect this update to affect featured snippets and ‘position zero’ search results significantly.

  • The bottom line is, BERT should help Google surface more relevant results, especially for ‘natural language’ types of searches

What BERT means for SEO going forward

It’s still pretty early to understand all of the details and info for what this means for SEO on the whole going forward. That will become clearer over time.

That said, here are a few of my own thoughts in light of all this, and what it means for the future of SEO as a whole:

1. Low quality, poorly focused, or overly broad content should take a hit in search results, as Google is getting better at surfacing specific pieces for specific queries.

2. Quality content will become more important than ever. Simply put, sites will not rank well in SEO unless their content is:

    • High Quality (i.e. Better than the competition)
    • User-Focused (i.e. Obsessed about what the user cares about, NOT the brand).
    • Intent-Focused (i.e. Contain content that is focused on the actual intent of a searcher, what we want them to focus on).
    • Expert-Oriented (i.e. Sites need to build trust and position themselves as an authority in the space)

3. Optimization has minimal value any more. Instead, developing high quality content is key. i.e. The key isn’t to optimize for BERT, rather, it is to build awesome content.

4. We will continue to see a rise in ‘position zero’ search results (i.e. rich snippets).

5. Final Thought: It’s going to become only more challenging to rank at the top of Google Search Results. However, I see this as a big opportunity. Most sites won’t be able to rise to the challenge. Those that do will have a long-lasting, huge SEO advantage over their competition in organic search.

How Do I know if My Site Was Affected By The BERT Update?

If you think you have been affected by BERT, it might not be immediately obvious via the normal SEO metrics. Because this update is so focused on nuance and long-tailed searches, it will be a bit more difficult to pin-point exactly where the effects may be felt, or what changes.

However, with a bit of digging, it is usually quickly evident if a site has been effected or not.

A Google place to start is by looking at year-over-year organic search traffic. Have you seen any changes around the last weeks of October? You can do the same for organic clicks and impressions data within Google Search Console. If either of these metrics show a noticeable shift during the relevant time frame, you have probably been affected. If negatively, it might be time to get some help.

Conclusion — What Does Bert Mean Specifically For My Site?

Every site is different, so it’s obviously a bit difficult to answer that question. However, if your site has been negatively affected by BERT, the best place to start is by taking a long, hard look at your content. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Is your content actually good (i.e. Better than your competitors)?

  • Does your content serve users users as best as it can?

  • Does your content feel more like you are an authoritative expert on a topic, or like you just wrote for search engines?

  • (Google has compiled a bunch of other really helpful questions to help evaluate your site content. Start here.)

If you want more help diving into these questions, or if you feel like you have been touched by BERT in a negative way, feel free to reach out to the folks at Magnetika. Our team of SEO experts is standing by to help you take the first steps in light of this big change.

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