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What is BERT and how is it affecting SEO?

Google are continually refining their algorithms and in October 2019 they introduced one of their biggest updates, BERT. It has been credited as one of the biggest leaps forward for search engines understanding natural human language.

What is the Google BERT update?

BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) was introduced by Google on the 25th October 2019 as the latest addition to their algorithm. It uses natural language processing (NPL), to better analyse and understand the semantic context of a search term. This update will affect around 10% of all Google search queries worldwide, with a focus on long-tail keywords – this makes it one of the biggest Google updates in the last 5 years.

Unlike most Google updates, BERT does not intend to penalise websites. Rather, to help Google better understand searcher intent, meaning it focuses on understanding search queries.

Google said:

“These improvements are oriented around improving language understanding, particularly for more natural language/conversational queries, as BERT is able to help Search better understand the nuance and context of words in Searches and better match those queries with helpful results.

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. You can search in a way that feels natural for you.” 

What is natural language processing?

Natural language processing (NLP) refers to a branch of artificial intelligence that deals with linguistics, it aims to understand how humans naturally communicate.

Voice searches and BERT

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a massive increase in the number of searches being made through the use of Siri and smart speakers like Alexa and Google Home. 

In the UK, 9.5 million people had smart speakers in 2018 and this number will only have risen since comScore estimated that 50% of all searches, in 2020, will be voice. With this dramatic increase in voice searches, it is more important than ever for search engines to better understand natural language to provide more relevant answers.

The introduction of BERT is helping further improve the connection between humans and technology. Instead of analysing each word as an individual, the Transformer takes every word in a sentence and looks at the meaning as a whole to better understand what it means.

How does the BERT update relate to stop words?

If you’ve ever optimised your website, you’ve probably come across stop words. Stop words are commonly used words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘in’ that search engines had been programmed to ignore.

They were pretty unimportant, until BERT. With BERT, stop words are now very important instead of ignoring them from its analysis of what a search query means, BERT now looks very closely at prepositional words and where they appear in a search query and how they alter the meaning of a sentence.

What Impact does BERT have on SEO?

The BERT algorithm update is said to affect 1 in 10 searches and mainly affects search queries where prepositions are a key to understanding what the searcher is looking for.

The BERT update is having most of an impact on two types of search query; longtail keyword phrases (phrases that contain five or more words) and more conversational search queries. So far, websites with guides, tutorials and ‘how-to’ articles have gained the most from BERT.

How can I optimise my website for BERT?

If you have been in the world of SEO for a while, you will be familiar with Google’s answer to how to optimise websites for algorithm and core updates and that’s typically 'optimise your website for your users’ which is true, and fundamentally the better your website is for the people who use it the more it will be favoured by Google.

But as the human beings we are, we want more specific answers. Google’s John Mueller answered a question on how to optimise for the BERT algorithm.

The question he answered was:

Will you tell me about the Google BERT Update? Which types of work can I do on SEO according to the BERT algorithms?”

His response was:

What we’re trying to do with these changes is to better understand text. Which on the one hand means better understanding the questions or the queries that people send us. And on the other hand, better understanding the text on a page. The queries are not really something that you can influence that much as an SEO.”

“The text on the page is something that you can influence. Our recommendation there is essentially to write naturally. So, it seems kind of obvious, but a lot of these algorithms try to understand natural text and they try to better understand like what topics is this page about. What special attributes do we need to watch out for and that would allow us to better match the query that someone is asking us with your specific page. So, if anything, there’s anything that you can do to kind of optimize for BERT, it’s essentially to make sure that your pages have natural text on them.”

So, what we can take from this is write as naturally as you can when creating content.

What changes have we made since BERT?

Even though you can’t directly optimise for BERT, we’ve been implementing some strategies we think help with the new update.

URLs

Here at Fluid, we are proud Drupal developers and Drupal being the clever platform it is, has a feature which removes stop words from URLs to save space. Since BERT, we know stop words are important. So, as part of optimisation for BERT, we’ve been including stop words in URLs to best match search queries made by searchers.

Meta data

If you’ve already optimised your meta data for your users, then you don’t need to worry. If not, then make sure you are adding meta titles and meta descriptions that are written for searchers, use your meta description to accurately describe the information on your webpage in a natural way.

Instead of just focusing on including relevant keywords, focus on what answers searches can get from your content and tailor your meta data around this. If your content is specific, then be specific in your meta title and description.

Content

If you’re in the SEO-sphere and have been for a while, then you’ll already know how content important is. For years, SEOs have recommended longer pieces of content and while longer pieces of content are still valuable for targeting many potential search queries as possible, it is not as much of a priority as it once was. Google is looking for specific answers, so creating content with specific search queries in mind should be incorporated into your SEO content strategy. 

Ever since the BERT update, we’ve been incorporating question and answer style blogs into our content strategies for clients – which we’ve seen really positive results from. Incorporating question and answer style blogs into your content strategy is a great way to optimise for BERT and increase your chances of appearing for featured snippets.

Our tips for writing for BERT:

  1. Be straightforward and direct when writing.
  2. Write for the user not for search engines – be conversational.
  3. Avoid adding unnecessary words.
  4. Write relevant content and be specific with the topic/subject you are writing about.
  5. Don’t worry about the length of your content.

How we can help!

Here at Fluid, we have an expert digital marketing team on hand to help maximise your website’s potential and help boost your website’s rankings. If you want to find out more, feel free to email becky@fluid-ideas.co.uk.

Bert is a character registered by its owners and is only used for a humorous representation of Google’s algorithm update.