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SEO Guide: The Google BERT Update

The Google BERT update fundamentally changed SEO
The Google BERT update fundamentally changed SEO. Image credit: ProfileTree

The way Google ranks and indexes content has changed massively over the past ten years. The Google BERT update was one of the most fundamental changes to date. This almost completely altered the way indexing works.

Most changes to the algorithm are fairly minor, and occur without much notice.

The BERT update was a different affair, impacting over 10% of all queries.

Let’s take a look at what the BERT update involved, how it changed SEO, and what you need to do to make your content rank.

What is the Google BERT Update?

BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. This is a natural language processing methodology which aims to make Google’s ranking algorithm work better with actual human speech.

If this sounds complicated, don’t worry. You don’t really need to understand the technology between BERT.

The thing to understand is that BERT is aimed at helping the algorithm understand the way words relate to each other. In the past, algorithms were less sophisticated, and essentially counted the frequency of a given keyword.

This isn’t a good reflection of how users actually use keywords.

Google BERT update example
BERT was aimed at improving Google's ability to figure out what users really mean. Image credit: Search Engine Journal

What is Natural Language Processing?

The key to understanding BERT is understanding what natural language processing is. This is essentially a piece of code which tries to figure out what users actually mean by their search queries, in order to match them with the right information.

Think about it like this. The way humans actually talk to each other can be very complex. Many words have different meanings, so context is crucial. Through natural language processing, the BERT update is all about understanding the relationships between words.

The flip side of this is that, without natural language processing, content for SEO can read very strangely. For one thing, one of the algorithm’s main jobs is figuring out what each page on your site is about.

If the algorithm can’t understand what each word actually means, this is very difficult.

For example, when we’re speaking or writing, we generally don’t use the same words over and over again. We might use semantic variations, or replace these words with pronouns instead.

This doesn’t work if the algorithm can’t understand that some words can mean the same things as each other. As such, BERT helps to reward well written content on a given topic.

When Did the BERT Update Come into Effect?

BERT was rolled out in October 2019. It’s impact was visible almost immediately. If your content was written for search engines rather than to provide value to users, you likely would have seen a huge dip in traffic.

By contrast, if you had a track record of publishing interesting and informative content, there’s a good chance you would have seen an uptick, even if you didn’t know much about SEO.

It’s not an understatement to say that BERT changed SEO forever.

Let’s look at how.

What Does the BERT Update Impact?

The Google BERT update essentially marked the end of cramming in keywords and hoping for the best. Once upon a time, if you had a decent website and a high keyword density, your chances of ranking well were pretty high.

These days, it’s not so simple.

Remember, that BERT is all about understanding how people actually speak. This means that the Google algorithm became a lot more sophisticated than simply counting keywords. Instead, it led to more nuanced ways of determining which content is the best.

Search Intent

The BERT update brought search intent to the centre of SEO. With a better ability to understand how different words relate to each other, Google also became better at figuring out what users actually want to achieve through search.

This is what’s referred to as search intent.

Generally speaking, the search intent of a given query will fall into one of four categories:

  • Transactional – Where the user is actively trying to make a particular purchase,
  • Commercial Research – Where the user is considering a purchase, but needs more information,
  • Navigational – Where a user is trying to find a particular website,
  • Informational – Where the user is looking for a particular piece of information, which is not related to a purchase.

This is crucial, as Google is unlikely to display any content to users which does not match their perceived search intent.

Search intent infographic
Search intent is normally self-evident. Image credit: Mangools

We’ll look at how to use this to your advantage a little later.

On-Page SEO

We’ve touched on this already, but BERT also greatly altered the practice of on-page SEO. If you didn’t know already, on-page SEO is all about writing content that search engines love. Remember, that this used to just mean getting the keywords in there.

Nowadays, if that’s all you do, you can hurt your site by getting accused of black-hat SEO strategies, such as keyword stuffing.

Instead, after the Google BERT update, on-page SEO became much more user centric.

But what does this mean in practical terms?

Google’s ultimate goal is to match users with the content which provides the most value, based on their search intent. While it’s not yet 100% effective at doing this, providing value to users should be the guiding mission of any SEO.

In terms of how you actually write your content, there are a couple of rules of thumb that you can keep in mind.

The first relates to readability. As the name suggests, this is how easy your content is to read. This can be measured out of 100 using the Flesch Reading Ease Scale. While the exact best readability score varies for different keywords, the higher you can get this, the better.

Similarly, it’s vital to include enough content to fully answer the user’s query. Where once you could provide a few hundred keyword stuffed words, these days the most successful content marketing is at least 1,000-2,000 words in length.

Google BERT update onpage infographic
On-Page SEO is much more complex than stuffing in keywords. Image credit: SEO Experts Company India

How to Rank Under the BERT Update

With that in mind, here are a couple of concrete strategies you can implement to maximise your organic traffic after the BERT update.

SERP Research and Understanding Search Intent

We covered the theory behind search intent already, but how do you figure out what a user really wants to achieve? The answer is SERP research. In short, this means checking out what’s already ranking well, and learning from what works.

Simply enter your desired target keyword on Google. If the results are mostly product listings, it’s got a transactional intent. If you see product reviews or comparisons, it’s probably commercial research.

The goal here is to figure out what kind of content performs the best, and do it better yourself.

Responding to User Questions

Responding to user questions is an excellent SEO strategy. For one thing, these are easy to match valuable content to the search intent. For another, they’re a great way to appear in featured snippets and people also ask boxes.

Where can you find good questions to write content around?

As part of your keyword research, look for opportunities with words like who, what, when and why. Even if you can’t find any, think about ways to use these phrases in subheadings with your target keyword, for instance what is KEYWORD or why is KEYWORD important?

For help and advice on SEO strategy, or any other kind of digital marketing, why not reach out to your team of experts today?

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