Google Algorithm Update: BERT

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Spoiler Alert:  This is meant to be a very broad-brush summary designed to explain why the latest major Google algorithm update may be affecting your rankings.  According to Google, this does not “directly affect rankings” and you cannot optimize for it. However, we and others in the SEO industry have seen wide fluctuations in rankings.  So far, all of our rankings have come back at least once, but we continue to see volatility in search results. In other words, hang on tight!

Bert Defined

Bert is a natural language processing pre-training approach that can be used on a large body of text. It handles tasks such as entity recognition, part of speech tagging, and question-answering among other natural language processes. Bert helps Google understand natural language text from the Web.

According to Google, this update will affect complicated search queries that depend on context.

What Google Says About Bert:

“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.”

What is the BERT Algorithm?

Google has open-sourced this technology, and others have created variations of BERT.”

The BERT algorithm (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) is a deep learning algorithm related to natural language processing. It helps a machine to understand what words in a sentence mean, but with all the nuances of context.  In other words, it is evaluating text for better responses to search for words that sound the same but has different meanings (ie. Too and Two) or words that are the same but have different meanings (ie. Sand (the substance) and Sand (the verb)).  This is clearly applicable to improving voice search and therefore, impacts not only core keywords but also long-tailed keywords in SEO.

BERT And On-Page SEO

BERT will not help sites with poorly defined or poorly written content.  Again, another sign that in the eyes of Google, “content is King”.   Google’s BERT Update improves how Google understands search queries. BERT analyzes search queries, not web pages. On-Page SEO becomes more important in terms of using words in precise ways. Poorly organized and written content may not be helped by the Google BERT update.

BERT Is A Huge Step Forward

Google is showing a major commitment to featuring solid, well-organized content prominently in search results.  At this point, there is no evidence to suggest that creating a large amount of long-tailed keyword content will improve website rankings or traffic.

Don’t Try To Optimize For BERT Unless You Can Outsmart A Machine

As soon as BERT was published, many in the search community began warning about articles claiming how to optimize for BERT.

Danny Sullivan of Google, who used to be an SEO expert in the private sector and seems to be a pretty straight shooter is quoted as follows:

“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.”

Conclusion

Facts:

  1.  Most, if not all, of the websites that we work on are experiencing fluctuations, if not major fluctuations, in rankings over the past couple of weeks.  All have returned to former rankings at least temporarily during this time.  All of them have custom content.
  2. Google will continue to take steps to ensure that websites that have great rankings also possess great content.  This is nothing new in policy but may be raising the bar in standards.
  3. I have rarely seen a client who did not gain the rewards of an improved content strategy.  Those rewards come in terms of search engine placement, increased traffic, increased engagement and increased conversion.   There is no practical reason to try to outsmart an algorithm-provide unique and valuable content to your users.

Finally, BERT is an extremely complex and advanced piece of machine learning.   I would not presume to be able to describe it in anything but the broadest of terms, and that is what I have done here.

Eric Van Cleave is the CEO and Digital Marketing Director for TIV Branding

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TIV Branding is a boutique branding firm in Sonoma County, California. We specialize in building brands by using traditional, social and digital channels in unison. If you would like to discuss a project or find out more about how we do what we do, please email us at info@TIVbranding.com.