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Google Announces Biggest SEO Update In 4 Years

Google's "BERT" Update Will Impact 1 in 10 Search Queries 

Google has announced its most important search update in almost five years, BERT.

BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.

According to Google, BERT helps better understand the nuances and context of words in searches, enabling Google to better match those queries with more relevant results.

Pandu Nayak, Google Fellow and Vice President, Search

“With the latest advancements from our research team in the science of language understanding–made possible by machine learning–we’re making a significant improvement to how we understand queries, representing the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.”

Given the growth in voice search volumes, being able to understand conversational search queries will obviously be crucial for the future of search.

Meanwhile, in the immediate term, the steady rise of featured snippets also makes this necessary. There are many examples where this has gone rogue, with contextual issues usually to blame.

Google claims that BERT will impact one in ten English language queries, with the update being rolled out first in the US this week, before being extended to other regions/languages.

Getting Better At Understanding Search Intent

People rarely search as they speak.

Google claims that many searchers use, what they call, “keyword-ese”.

Essentially typing strings of words that they think Google will understand but aren’t actually how they’d naturally ask a question. Which is something BERT seeks to address.

Google’s BERT update is representative of Google’s leaps in what’s called Natural Language Processing (NLP).

Pandu Nayak, Google Fellow and Vice President, Search

“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.”

From an SEO point of view, it further cements the idea of optimising website content to match search intent, rather than search queries verbatim.

Focusing on providing benefit, useful content and value for searchers.

Rather than lots of vacuous copywriting, e.g. peppering a website with the “best removal firm bayside” keyword hundreds of times, to trick Google into thinking a business is worthy.

BERT Builds On Google RankBrain

BERT is Google’s most significant search innovation since “RankBrain”, which launched in 2015.

RankBrain was Google’s first artificial intelligence method for understanding queries.

Simply put, before the launch of RankBrain, Google’s search system was built on two broad factors, website copy and backlinks. With the former supposedly proving relevancy and the latter demonstrative of social proof, via third party endorsement.

In reality, both got gamed. Extensively. Therefore in 2015 Google introduced RankBrain as a third wheel to act as almost a human-ish sense check on results.

Post-RankBrain, it is believed that search queries now go through an interpretation model that can apply possible factors like the location of the searcher, personalisation, and the words of the query to determine the searcher’s true intent.

By discerning this true intent, Google can deliver more relevant results.

BERT does not replace RankBrain, rather it is an additional method for understanding content and queries.

There are various schools of thought related to how best to optimise websites for RankBrain, and BERT will no doubt breed it’s own brood.

However, Google’s advice has always been pretty emphatic on how best to tackle RankBrain and given its similarities with BERT; the same guidance will likely remain applicable.

John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, May 2017

“If optimizing for RankBrain = make a great site, it seems like the RankBrain part is irrelevant. Make great sites for your users, folks.”

Gary Illyses, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, September 2019 

“You optimize your content for users and thus for RankBrain. That hasn't changed.”

In a nutshell, focus on offering an excellent user experience, assisting and aiding searchers in their endeavours, and you shouldn’t go too far wrong.



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