Another Algorithm: How Google’s BERT Update Affects SEO

This past fall, Google started rolling out its biggest algorithm change in about 5 years. It’s called BERT, and it was developed by researchers at Google in 2018 to better understand natural language queries. And we think it’s worth paying attention to—especially if you’re doing any kind of SEO work for your business.  

Google’s Most Human AI Yet

So it’s designed entirely around natural language processing, or NLP. This means that, as a Google user, you won’t have to modify your way of speaking or writing to find what you’re looking for. Especially with the prevalence of voice search these days, we’re all going to benefit from this easier, more natural way of searching. 
In this blog, Google Fellow and Vice President of Search, Pandu Nayak, had this to say about what BERT means for Google users:

“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 the same blog, Mr. Nayak gave the example of a person searching Google for “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa.” Without understanding the role of the word “to” in this sentence, you can’t understand the searcher’s intent. So Google’s older algorithm, RankBrain, might return results for U.S. citizens traveling to Brazil. “With BERT,” Google’s VP of Search explains, “Search is able to grasp this nuance and know that the very common word “to” actually matters a lot here, and we can provide a much more relevant result for this query.”
The search giant rolled out the algorithm for English language searches in October of 2019 and will expand to other languages in the near future. It’s also been implemented globally for featured snippets in all languages. 

What Happened to the OId Algorithm?

RankBrain was the smartest algorithm of its time, utilizing machine learning to inform how it delivered search results. It used keywords, meta tags, and other factors to determine the relevance of a page to a given search result. And in comparison to BERT, RankBrain was driven more by keywords and less by context. But that doesn’t mean that keywords are any less important with the advent of BERT. 
Google didn’t totally build over or throw out RankBrain—BERT is an addition to that 2015 algo, and you can think of it as another filter that Google pushes a search through. Google will still use RankBrain to understand user intent, but when it suspects that the query needs an extra filter to interpret user intent, that’s when BERT steps in. 

How Will BERT Affect My SEO Efforts?

Like we mentioned, BERT is poised to deliver better, more relevant searches for people using voice to text when searching on desktop or mobile, as well as AI assistants like Alexa and Siri. For your website and your business,  you’ll need to take this into consideration by creating higher quality, more engaging, and easier-to-read content. Keyword stuffing is an SEO practice of the distant past, but somehow we still see its lingering presence on sites today. With BERT, overly keyword-ing your pages won’t serve you, but publishing highly relevant content that fully answers your customers’ questions will.
And on that note, it’s speculated that BERT won’t interpret more to mean better. With RankBrain, you could potentially outrank your competition by writing more content on a subject, product, or service. But with BERT, if that content includes a lot of redundancy and fluff, your page won’t be rewarded with higher rank. This algorithm holds us to a higher content standard, and we’re excited to see the results of that in the SERPs. 
Marketing teams are now tasked, once again, with adapting SEO efforts to meet this algorithm change. But if your marketing team has already been creating quality content rather than leaning too heavily on keywords, you won’t have to change much of your strategy.

Optimize Your Site for BERT

As Google’s algorithms get smarter and more human, it’s increasingly important to appeal to the real humans you’re talking to when you write content. Google’s VP of Search tells us in that blog we mentioned earlier that Google hopes people can ditch some of the “keyword-ese” they have to revert to when googling so everyone can “search in a way that feels natural.”
So as you consider revamping your SEO efforts at the turn of the year, know that you don’t have to overfeed Google with keywords. You don’t need to fuss over the perfect H2 for Google’s sake. You just need to write content for your product pages, service pages, and blogs that speaks hyper-clearly to your target audience (making sure you’ve added the right meta tags), and the algorithm will handle the rest. 
And if you’d like to partner with a team of experienced SEO professionals who can help you tackle all the changes and challenges that Google throws at you, let’s start a conversation

About Lance

For nearly a decade, Lance has worked with Uptick in search engine optimization in some capacity, initially building our SEO department from the ground up. His expertise in the world of optimization makes him the ideal person to keep Uptick on the cutting edge of the ever-evolving SEO sphere. A graduate of Samford University, Lance is a member of Samford University’s Entrepreneurship, Management, and Marketing Advisory Board, creating the university’s first digital marketing course. He has spoken at the Birmingham chapter of the American Marketing Association, co-hosted ‘Grow With Google’ small business events, and presented to the Birmingham and Huntsville chapters of the Public Relations Council of Alabama. Currently, he spearheads Uptick’s SEO sales, business development, and overall strategies.

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