Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (yikes! How about just BERT) is Google’s latest update to its search and SEO empire. It promises to alter nearly 10% of all search traffic on its engine! While this may sound like the beginning of an SEO apocalypse, don’t break out your bug-out-bag and change your on-site keywords just yet. What BERT does is remarkable and presents webmasters and site operators with both clarity and opportunity. This is because Google’s BERT is an advanced reader.
What Google’s BERT Update Does…and What it Doesn’t Do
Google’s original premise when it came to searching the internet was simple. Create an intuitive way to find information online. It became clear very quickly that this was too simple. The best reality is one where someone finds information that they are actually looking for when they type a query into the box and press ‘enter’.
Even after they invented sophisticated algorithms for ranking and multiple core updates to the process of retrieving the information that people sought, the problem that persisted was always user input. The ultimate language barrier is having to speak all of them. In human beings, language is innate and nurtured. In machines, nothing is innate. The nuance of how we use context to understand the meaning of a sentence or phrase is very difficult to replicate programmatically. BERT solves the word puzzle and arrives at context.
Twisted Context: The Brazilian Traveler
Here is an example given by Google itself. If a Brazilian is looking for information about how to obtain a visa to go to the United States they may type in “2019 brazil traveler to usa need visa”
The results without BERT pertain to how an American can obtain a visa to Brazil. With BERT, we receive the information that was desired which in this case is how a Brazilian would obtain a visa to travel to the United States.
You can see that without BERT, the word ‘to’ is being ignored or misinterpreted. When we read it, we can guess quickly that the traveler is from Brazil and going to the U.S.A. If we ignored that word and read the rest in order the last 4 words are “usa need a visa”. “To” is ignored because it is what’s known as a ‘stop’ word or a word that Google’s search engine generally ignored in the past.
Previously, Google’s search engine would read each word in order and pick out the keywords and find the most relevant result. BERT instead searches all the words from both directions looking for relationships that give context to the initial user’s intent. So all the “stop” words (such as the, a, an, or, of, many, is, etc) will now be used to form appropriate context and deliver more accurate and refined results. It is actually quite revolutionary.
Will Google’s BERT Destroy My Site Rankings?
Well, the short answer is probably not. Some of that depends on where your search traffic is coming from or more specifically, what your search traffic typed in to arrive at your website. Google estimates that 1 in 10 search queries typed into its engine are shown results that are inaccurate given the context of the query. This means that 10% of traffic that is hitting a website due to mislabeled queries will undoubtedly drop off. The upside to this is two-fold. One, people that are searching for information about the banks of the Missouri for fly fishing probably don’t want to see a bunch of results for all of the financial institutions that exist in the state of Missouri! It isn’t desirable traffic because unless they are giving away free money, the person who just wants to fish probably isn’t going to stay around for long on a bank website. Two, this update won’t affect shorter search queries. BERT will focus on long-tail queries in order to provide information in line with the appropriate context so if you’ve consistently ranked for a few keywords in your niche, those rankings will be unaffected.
In short, while there is nothing overt to worry about with this update, it is worth mentioning that BERT is more of a harbinger of things to come in the world of SEO. A world that Google created and has been evolving ever since the 1990’s.
The Very Brief Version of Google Updates
Google has been evolving ever since its inception in the mid-1990’s. While some updates have caused great upheaval, others have quietly shifted the SEO landscape in a meaningful and harmless way. There have been hundreds of updates but here are a few that changed your (and your website’s) life.
- 2000 – Update adds the concept of page ranking, unofficially starting the concept of SEO
- 2003 – ‘Florida’ update seeks to end the practice of keyword stuffing
- 2004 – ‘Austin’ update introduced ‘page relevance’ and continued the crackdown on spammy SEO practices
- 2005 – ‘Bourbon’ and ‘Jagger’ updates seek to end link farms, low-quality links, and duplicate content across the web.
- 2011-2015 ‘Panda’ update demotes content farms and low-quality content. Improves ability to recognize bad practices.
- 2012 ‘Penguin’ update continues the assault on keyword stuffing affecting 3% of all queries
- 2013 ‘Hummingbird’ update allowed for better reading of text and queries
- 2015 ‘Mobilgeddon’ update enforces mobile-friendly websites
- 2018 ‘EAT’ updates concern themselves with Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness
- 2019 ‘BERT’ update to better understand the context of search queries.
While nowhere near a complete synopsis of all of the iterations of Google’s magical algorithms, the timeline above shows forward motion in a singular direction. (for a complete list, check out this excellent timeline of Google updates) All of these updates, over time, align themselves with encouraging websites to showcase exceptional content, user engagement, and SEO with integrity.
What Does Google Say about BERT?
Danny Sullivan, Google’s Search Liaison tweeted “There’s nothing to optimize for with BERT, nor anything for anyone to be rethinking. The fundamentals of us seeking to reward great content remain unchanged.”
Changes made just before BERT were already beefing up the need for sites to contain quality content, links, layouts and more. The overarching trend is that if you continue to supply your site with excellent articles, meaningful on-page SEO, and quality links without being spammy about it, you will attain success in Google Search.
Do Keywords Still Matter?
Yes! Absolutely! Keywords and phrases are still king. If anything, the addition of BERT interpreting context in search queries presents a unique opportunity to go after phrases that sound like conversational speech. It means that your articles and on-page SEO can be beautiful and easy to read.
Everything is traveling on a path towards relevancy. If your content is genuine and polished and your information is accurate and well-presented, your rankings will improve. BERT is about the world finding what is looking for.
What Should You Do Next?
Well, Google states that there are 4 main factors to consider as you continue to build content on your website: “Content & quality, expertise, presentation & production, and competitive comparison”
Here’s what we suggest:
- Review the overall quality and effectiveness of all page content
- Make a checklist of areas you could optimize more and places where you have over-optimized
- Check the quality and language of inbound and outbound links
- Research the search results for long tail key phrases with stop words and see how you can best utilize them
- Pour over your Google Analytics site data to gleen new markets and ideas
Most importantly,look at your content with fresh eyes and ask “does this answer the question being asked and does it answer it in a beautiful way?”. If it doesn’t, then make a few updates and move forward until the Google Gods decide to once again roll the applecart up on one wheel. See you on the first page of Google!