Over the years, search engine optimization has become increasingly difficult for marketing teams as Google and other search engines continuously update and improve their algorithms. According to the State of SEO in 2019, 97% of marketers believe in the importance of SEO — an increase from 88% last year — so there’s a lot of discussion around the latest Google update.
With Google BERT, therefore, marketing teams will once again need to adapt their SEO strategies to remain competitive. That’s why we’ve turned to the experts to learn more about Google BERT and how the change will impact SEO.
What Is Google BERT?
The BERT algorithm — Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers — leverages machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) to better understand the context of a search query. While Bing had already been using BERT, Google recently announced it will begin using the algorithm for some searches in the U.S.
John Frigo, SEO lead at MySupplementStore believes the update is in response to the growing adoption of voice-enabled devices. “Think about your own search behavior when typing into your computer or phone,” explained Frigo, “and then think about how you search when you’re talking to Siri, or talking to your phone, or a smart device.” In a nutshell, Google BERT is one step closer to the search engine’s ultimate goal: understanding and leveraging search intent.
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Google BERT Brings Major Improvements to Google’s Algorithm
Morgan Hennessey, search analyst at Electric Enjin, sees Google BERT as a great step in the right direction. “BERT is going to improve results for voice searches and people using talk to text to search,” she stated, which is crucial as “more people every day are searching using artificial intelligence (AI) assistants like Siri and Alexa.”
The other main benefit of BERT is that it will force businesses to publish higher quality content. “BERT is looking for content that answers one specific question or query, and answers it fully,” explained Hennessy. Google BERT will challenge the notion that more content is better. "This is going to allow Google to present the absolute best results for search queries," Hennessey said.
How Google BERT Affects SEO
“Unlike many other algorithm updates and changes, BERT isn’t something that’s necessarily going to have a huge effect on most sites, nor is it something a site could have prepared for,” suggested Frigo. The companies most impacted will be those that have been targeting unrelated keywords, publishing large amounts of irrelevant content, have a multilingual web presence, or have started leveraging voice-enabled devices.
Britney Muller, SEO scientist of Moz, gave CMSWire some deeper insights into BERT. “I would like to first clarify that we lack information about how Google works, as does nearly everyone, even top engineers at Google,” Muller began. “We are seeing a slight uptick in featured snippets around 20%, more so in mobile than on desktop. However, this isn’t an overwhelming uptick as it only restores the appearance of featured snippets to pre-Oct 5th levels,” she said.
Interestingly, Muller’s research showed that both paragraph and list featured snippet types increased, whereas table featured snippets decreased, the latter being least language-focused of the formats. “[Furthermore,] one of the biggest feature changes at the time of the BERT announcement has been the growth of the explore feature. The explore features typically don’t fluctuate, but there is a clear increase around the time of the BERT announcement on both mobile and desktop,” she continued.
Finally, Muller pointed out that image and video appearance rates “took a bit of a dip around that same time, which is likely related [to BERT].”
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Websites Targeting Irrelevant Keywords Will Take a Hit
“If in the past you were getting untargeted web traffic because of a confusing term or word with a double meaning,” Frigo said, “you may lose some of that traffic, but that traffic was pointless to you in the first place.” That’s because Google BERT allows the search engine to better under the context of a search query, so your content needs to have greater relevancy for particular keywords.
Long-Tail Keywords Become More Important
Companies will also have to make a shift towards strategies that optimize SEO for voice devices. “SEOs are going to have to start steering away from targeting the broad-term keywords,” suggested Hennessy, “and implementing a more strategic long-tail keyword strategy that takes natural language into account.” That’s because people phrase questions or search queries much differently when speaking, and it’s important to capture those keywords as well.
Localized Content May Have a Greater Impact Than Translated Sites
Brendan Walsh, head of global SEO at Lionbridge, believes there will also be interesting implications for multilingual SEO strategies. “Translating English sites into other languages will still be an effective way to market in other countries,” he added, “but creating original content in each language that answers multilingual users’ questions will be particularly impactful.”
Relevant Content Will Continue to Produce the Best Results
Hennessey also suggested, “websites aren't going to be able to just pump out poor content and get credit for it.” Google will now be able to better understand the intention behind a particular search query, and the most highly relevant companies will rank and not those websites that target keywords solely for traffic. That’s why she said, “Only the best, most unique content that answers real questions are going to be getting the most SERP [search engine result page] appearances and an increase in organic traffic.”
“In general, if you focus your content creation around bringing value and knowledge to your target audience, each new update from Google should be welcomed,” Walsh said. While Google BERT brings changes to the specifics of SEO, the best strategy is still the same as it’s always been: publish valuable content that’s relevant to your audience.