Updated: Mar 20, 2020
Introduced late 2019, Google's latest algorithm, BERT, has been seen as the biggest change in search since the company released RankBrain—their first artificial intelligence method for understanding queries.
According to Google, BERT is "a neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) pre-training called Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, or BERT, for short." Traditionally, computers have a hard time understanding human language. They can store text but the understanding of language has been nearly impossible for computers. When the company released RankBrain in 2015, the algorithm claimed to look at both keywords and content of web pages to better understand what the meanings of the words were. BERT does not replace RankBrain but aiming to better understand natural language, it looks at the words before and after entities and context pre-trained on Wikipedia to provide a richer understanding of language.
How many times did you misspell a word and Google's spelling system helped finding the right word to get you what you needed? The search engine has been doing a good job in increasing its readability over the year, and BERT, is just another method for understanding content at its fullest.
In one example mentioned by Google, when a user searches for “2020 brazil traveler to usa need a visa,” the word “to” and its correlation to the other words are vital for understanding its meaning. Formerly, Google wouldn’t understand the importance of this connection and would bring out results about U.S. citizens traveling to Brazil. “With BERT, Search is able to grasp this nuance and know that the very common word “to” actually matters a lot here, and we can provide a much more relevant result for this query,” Google explained.
Is that the only change?
No. BERT will either stop showing your content if it isn’t the right fit for the demand or it will start showing your content if it is. However, the algorithm is getting smarter and your content most likely wasn’t best suited for those specific queries, which is a good thing! You wouldn't want a higher bounce rate anyways, would you?
Google also made changes to featured snippets and it is affected in 70 languages. You may not own the featured snippets, but showing up in the first page for long-tail queries that are relevant to your business is a great way to gain qualified traffic and drive revenue organically. If you track keyword performance, don't forget to include long-tail queries and monitor them. You may even find opportunities to improve your content and take over those featured snippets.
So what does it mean for SEOs and digital marketers?
There has been some fuss going on in the industry around BERT and how you can't optimize for it. That’s not the way to think about BERT. Google has already confirmed there is no secret to optimize for it. Its goal is to help the search engine to better understand searchers’ intent when searching in natural language.
Per Google, 10% of all queries have been impacted by this update. That's a HUGE change! However, some marketers claimed to have seen their site slightly impacted by the algorithm when checking their search traffic. Well, when you look at your rankings and you noticed minimal change, it simply means you're probably tracking short-tail queries—which are likely to send higher volumes of traffic to your site—and you are probably not tracking a lot of long-tail keywords. It's worth paying attention to organic acquisition performance for top of funnel/awareness content as well.
The advantage for content creators is they can be less worried about writing for the machines. Don’t try to optimize for BERT, but rather, write for people, create incredible experiences for your audiences, and adjust your strategy to write good quality content. As Google better understands the context of the content you are writing, keyword density will become less important in the near future. If you want to rank higher for informational keywords, be very specific and answer the question better than your competitors. Whether it is through videos and images or audio, do whatever it takes to create an overall better experience. Never underestimate the power of well-written content. It builds a relationship with your audience and will keep them coming back to your site.
Finally, how do you optimize for BERT?
Again, you can't. The only way to improve your website with this update is to adjust your strategy and create highly specific content that is relevant for your users, in other words, that that answers the questions they are looking for. If you fulfill their needs you satisfy the specific motivation of the searcher, and that right there is the catch.
I know this sounds odd but if your search traffic slightly drops from the latest update, it’s not a bad thing. Why? It's unlikely that the traffic converted into a conversion anyways. Think about it: if someone searched for “how to restore furniture without sanding” and they landed on your article about how your sand papers are amazing, they are just going to hit the back button and go back to their search on Google.