Meet: Google’s BERT – The Latest Search Algorithm

If you’re an SEO or PPC professional, or even a digital-savvy Marketing Director, you’ve likely heard of Google’s latest search algorithm update which rolled out in late October 2019 and has been dubbed BERT. Essentially, the update is supposed to help Google better understand natural language, and is being hailed as the largest algorithm update Google has rolled out in the last five years. With a name like BERT, which stands for “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers,” it’s easy to get overwhelmed. What the heck is BERT and how do I optimize my website content or PPC ads for it?

BERT is an update on Google’s end that is expected to impact 1 in 10 of all search queries, with a goal of helping computers better understand language – more so like another human would. While nearly any Google search produces relevant results, and the search giant does do an amazing job on this front already, a searcher often has to scroll a bit to find the results that are contextually relevant. It’s true, that searches have become more nuanced and long-tail with the introduction of voice search, and the accumulation of so many search results. Searchers must be clearer than ever when searching, and this is Google’s response to that shift.

Google cited a powerful example of how the update might play out in the real world. In the query below, a searcher is attempting to find information about traveling from Brazil to the US. Previously, Google didn’t have a good grasp on “to” in this context, and so the first results prove that they don’t quite understand the relationship that all the individual words have when strung together – that it is a traveler from Brazil going TO the US. Because of this nuance, Google showed a result that would only apply to the inverse of that relationship – a US traveler heading to Brazil. In the “after” scenario, Google better understands that the little word “to” has some big meaning here – that this searcher is someone coming from Brazil to the US and requesting information on visas. With this context better understood by BERT, Google can return a more specific and relevant search result.

Pretty cool, huh? And so comes the next question: How do I optimize for this?

It’s true, I’ve gotten LinkedIn messages from friends, emails from clients – everyone wondering what they can do to address BERT. My answer has been a resounding: NOT MUCH!

When it comes to your SEO or content team, I don’t think there are any changes they need to make regarding BERT if they are already producing quality content directly related to the needs of your users. The way we are viewing BERT is as a change on Google’s end that helps the engine to better understand our users’ searches and how they might relate to our content. So, continue to produce good content, and BERT should only help you!

Instead of trying to tweak content to meet the mostly unspecified, yet multi-faceted updates around BERT, I would instead focus efforts on reviewing your reporting and seeing if metrics or keyword rankings have impacted by the change at all.

Additionally, if you’re running any PPC, you may find that you or your PPC manger has often left out small contextual words like “to”, in order to condense down keywords so they weren’t considered too long tail to serve. If that’s the case, you may want to watch your Search Terms reports over the coming weeks to see if you note any changes. If you do, consider a small test campaign where you take your top keywords and make them more detailed. It will create some long tail keywords for sure, likely with low volume, but if they contextually mean they’ll be meeting the needs of a high intent searcher, you might see them start to pick up over the next couple of weeks.

If your team doing anything special or different to address BERT? Have you seen any changes to your reporting yet? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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