The new BERT update to Google’s search algorithm is being called the most important update in years. Pandu Nayak, Google’s vice president, search, calls the update the “biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.” Nayak says the update will impact about one in 10 searches in the U.S. in English.
“In the world of search updates, where algorithm changes are often far more subtle, an update that affects 10% of searches is a pretty big deal,” comments Frederic Lardinois at TechCrunch.
Understanding Conversational Searches
BERT, which stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, adjusts the algorithm to better understand natural language processing, or longer, more conversational searches. It takes into account prepositions like “for” or “to” – small words that can have large impact on meanings in search queries.
Nayak uses the search for “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa” as an example. Not understanding the importance of the word “to” in the query, Google previously returned results about U.S. citizens traveling to Brazil. But the query is about a Brazilian traveling to the U.S., not the other way around. With BERT’s help, Google ranks information on visas for tourists traveling to the US at the top of search results, specifically a US embassy page.
Despite the purported significance of the update, digital marketers and website owners have noticed little or no impact on their traffic. That’s because the update impacts longer queries. Tracking tools used by SEO specialists, such as Mozcast and others, primarily track shorter queries, explains Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Land. Site owners typically focus on shorter phrases that tend to send higher volumes of traffic to their sites.
The New York Times reported a large drop in its traffic, but it was difficult to attribute the drop specifically to BERT.
Can you Optimize Web Content for BERT?
Naturally, digital marketers, SEO pros and content creators wonder how they can optimize for the update. “That’s not the way to think about BERT,” Schwartz advises. “Google has already stated there is no real way to optimize for it.”
The update benefits SEOs and content creators, he says. They can worry less about writing for the Google’s search algorithm and focus more on writing great content — for real people.
Nevertheless, digital marketing consultant Neil Patel offers some recommendations:
Create very specific content. Use keyword tools to find more narrow topics. Answer the searcher’s question as quickly as possible and provide more value than competitors.
Quality over length. Extraordinarily long copy won’t improve rankings. The algorithm focuses on quality, not word count.
Forget about keyword density. Most digital marketers have stopped fretting about keyword density and only place keywords naturally throughout their copy. Keyword density becomes even less important as Google better understands the searcher’s intent.
Don’t fret about less traffic. If your traffic drops due to the update, most likely that traffic was low value and unlikely to convert in the first place. The visitors likely clicked away after realizing that their search results didn’t meet their expectations and the web page didn’t answer their question. If you lose traffic, examine the pages that lost traffic and the search queries that you aren’t ranking for anymore, and adjust content or create new content that answers questions asked by online searchers. To do that, log into your Google Search Console, click on “search results,” and click on the date button.
Bottom Line: Google calls its BERT update its most important search algorithm update in years, but optimizing for it could be difficult. Instead of trying to write for the algorithm, digital marketing experts recommend that content creators focus pleasing humans by answering their specific questions and writing stellar content.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.