How Google’s BERT SEO Update Will Impact Content and Search

On Oct. 25, 2019, Google announced BERT, its biggest algorithm update since RankBrain in 2015. BERT will influence one in ten search queries, according to Google.

The SEO community is working hard to get ahead of the changes. I’m excited to share some initial ideas on how to cope with BERT.

What is BERT?

The Google Blog says that BERT's creation "was the result of Google research on transformers: models that process words in relation to all the other words in a sentence, rather than one-by-one in order. BERT models can therefore consider the full context of a word by looking at words that come before and after it. This is particularly useful for understanding the intent behind search queries."

The blog post explains that last year Google, “Introduced an open-sourced, neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) pre-training called Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, or as we call it--BERT, for short."

What does this mean? Let’s look at examples of pre-BERT and post-BERT to understand what's changed.

Here’s a search for “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa.” The word “to” and its relationship to the other words in the query are particularly important to understanding the meaning. The search is about a Brazilian traveling to the United States, and not the other way around.

Prior to BERT, our algorithms wouldn't understand the importance of this connection. As a result, we returned results about U.S. citizens traveling to Brazil. With BERT, the search is able to grasp this nuance. It knows that the very common word “to” actually matters, and can provide a more relevant result for this query.

Let’s look at another query: “do estheticians stand a lot at work.” Previously, search platforms matched keywords, matching the term “stand-alone” in the result with the word “stand” in the query. But that didn't consider the correct use of the word “stand.” On the other hand, BERT understands that “stand” is related to the concept of the physical demands of a job. It displays a more useful response.

Is BERT good or bad for content?

As a Google user, you’ll more than likely enjoy the benefits of BERT.

The ability of Google to use NLP is a big step toward a better understanding of natural human language. While search engines had historically relied on keywords with little understanding of intent, BERT demonstrates steady progress in this area.

That said, if you create quality content and have a burning desire for more relevant organic search traffic, then BERT is definitely good for you. Google has long strived to answer queries with the most accurate, direct, and authoritative information. Our goal as creators is to answer user questions through content and properly format it so search engines can easily digest and index it. BERT improves Google's ability to understand our content, thus helping us facilitate our goal.

If you create low-quality content that's stuffed with keywords, then you might not like BERT. Some sites already have complained about major traffic drops recently.

How to plan for BERT

Google says you can't optimize for BERT. So what can we do?

Simply write content for users. As always. Then make sure that content is properly formatted for indexing.

To get started, here are tips to adjust SEO strategies around not just BERT, but to deliver stronger content for your target user’s search inquiries.

Optimize for keywords with search intent. 

This strategy may be older than BERT, but it’s still critical and will increase in necessity. Communicators need to avoid looking at keywords and prioritize ranking for the queries that are important to their target customers.

Let’s say you handle SEO for a bank. The banks wants to add loan customers. When planning your next blog, consider issues the bank can solve for a customer. Maybe you offer the best farming equipment financing.

BERT would be a factor in potentially giving higher priority to a how-to titled article, compared to a less-specific page about “farming equipment financing.” Based on what Google has shared about BERT, it should now also understand the intent of users. It should direct users to the blog containing a how-to article.

That means there will be more benefit to creating a wider variety of content to address different queries. In pre-BERT times, having a general page would be enough.

A user searching for “how to get farming equipment financing” is closer to making a decision on a lender than “bank loans.” As Google and users get smarter, searches will become more specific.  And the more specific the searcher, the more likely they could become a customer.  

Write for users

Keeping users at the forefront of every content decision remains the safest way to get long-term search results that improve with every algorithm update. Think of the questions, or pain points, that you can solve. Using excessive keywords, ceaselessly creating content or churning out low-quality, unhelpful blog posts will no longer suffice.

Ryder Meehan is co-founder/CEO at Upgrow