Google has announced its latest search algorithm update– BERT. The update was just rolled out at the end of October and is forecasted to affect about 10% of queries.
In the world of search updates, where algorithm changes are often more subtle, an update that affects such a large percentage of queries is a pretty big deal. BERT is the biggest update Google has made to its search algorithm in the last 5 years—since Google released RankBrain—but that’s no reason to be nervous about it.
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Previous Google updates such as core, Panda, and Penguin were specifically designed to improve search quality indirectly by counteracting black hat methods that attempted to abuse the algorithm in order to gain a higher search engine ranking. Alternatively, BERT is aimed at improving search quality directly—by helping Google interpret search language.
This update specifically targets longer, more controversial (in other words human) queries, that most often include long-tail keywords—which don’t make up most searches. It also targets featured snippets in search.
According to Google’s Vice President of Search, Pandu Nayak:
“At Google’s core, Search is understanding the language we use. And by applying BERT models to both rankings and featured snippets in search, we’re able to understand and do a much better job helping everyone find useful information in their search results. When it comes to ranking search results, BERT will help search better understand 1 in 10 searches in the U.S. in English.
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. And as a result, you can search in a way that feels natural for you.”
What does BERT Mean to You?
Google has always claimed that there is nothing you can do to address algorithm updates, but especially with BERT they have insisted that it’s focused on interpreting natural language in search content as opposed to rearranging google rankings or inflicting penalties. While it is said to affect 10% of searches, it’s mostly aimed at long tail keywords and snippets, which at first glance should be a pretty small change.
Since BERT is a complex update to Google’s hardware, it’s possible that this is a test rollout before the algorithm is applied more broadly.
Even if you do drop in search rankings for a long tail query that sends you 10 visits per day from Google searches, it will be a lot less noticeable than dropping in rankings for a short tail query that sends you 1,000 visits per day.
But overall, you shouldn’t expect to see negatives in your search traffic due to BERT. If you are negatively affected, it will more likely be indirectly related to your competitors getting SEO boosts from their quality longform content getting picked up by the new algorithm.
However, some sources have indicated significant dips in traffic, although it cannot be confirmed that BERT is at fault—for example, the New York Times.
Something else to take away from this update is that as Google better understands the content of searches made in conversational English, keyword density will become less and less important in SEO. As always, but especially moving forward in the wake of BERT, place your SEO focus on content quality and targeting specific topics and questions with longtail keywords rather than keyword stuffing.
What Does BERT look like?
Google some very helpful examples of BERT in action to get a better idea of how it will affect search rankings.
The image below shows the search term “do estheticians stand a lot at work”. Initially, the search term and the Google result were matched on a keyword basis. The keyword from the query “stand” was matched with “stand-alone”, resulting in some irrelevant content. But with BERT, Google understands that the word “stand” is related to physically standing.
Before Bert, the top result would probably be how US citizens can travel to Brazil without a visa.
The search wasn’t about US people going to Brazil, it was about people from Brazil traveling to the US.
We can see that the result after the Bert update is much more relevant.
BERT is applied to 1 in 10 searches in order to offer better information. Some types of queries that are affected include:
- Longer searches
- Conversational queries
- Longtail keywords with prepositions (‘from’, ‘to’, ‘on’) that affect the meaning
Google also made changes to featured snippets. For example, if you searched for “parking on a hill with no curb”, Google used to place too much emphasis on the word “curb” and not enough emphasis on the word “no”.
That’s a big difference… and you can see that in the results.
A Focus on Targeting Informational Keywords
There are three types of queries people usually make when performing a search:
An informational query is like someone looking to grow a garden. They aren’t sure how so they may search for “how to garden”.
And once they perform the search, they may find a solution to this query, such as different gardening techniques. From there, they may search for more information about this specific type of gardening they’ve read about, using a navigational query such as “Organic Gardening”.
Once they find more information about their navigational query, they then may perform a transactional search query, such as “The Organic Gardening Book”.
Google’s BERT update seems to be mainly impacting top-of-the-funnel keywords, which are usually informational related keywords.
Winning With BERT
The best way to make sure you “win” with this update is to have content that answers the questions of your target audience. There is never a way to “win” a Google update, as Google has been telling us for years, but your best long-term strategy is lots of quality, conversationally worded content. Another great strategy is specificity—which can be achieved by using long tail, informational keywords.
Creating content is the easiest way to rank for informational related keywords which are targeted by BERT. This should be achieved with a combination of quality and quantity. While a lot of longer-form content ranks well on Google, the algorithm is focused on quality, and it’s crucial to not forget that word count is useless if it’s not intentional and meaningful.
SEO targeted towards frequent head terms that can be interpreted in a million different ways in the hopes of getting search hits will indeed get you long content—but it probably won’t be quality, and it will probably increase your bounce rate when searchers come to your site and leave because Google thought you could answer their questions when you couldn’t.
Alternatively, focusing on long-tail key words will ensure that although your search traffic may decrease, your visitors will indeed find the information they were looking for on your website—and Google will see that.
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