Our phone is ringing. We’re getting those emails. We’re feeling your pain.
Our small business clients (and even business owners we’ve never met) have been asking the same question lately: “What the heck is Google’s BERT update and how does it impact our SEO strategy?”
I get why they are worried.
It took many months for some of our clients to earn their spots at the top of the search engine results page. Now they’re nervous about losing those hard-earned rankings.
So when Google began rolling out the BERT search algorithm update the week of Oct 21, we wanted to stay on top of the situation and make sure our content marketing/organic search strategies were up-to-date.
Below is what we’ve learned so far.
At Symphonic Digital, we will continue to monitor the situation. In the meantime, if this article does not answer your questions about your business and its SEO approach, please call me at +1 888-964-3498. Or you can contact our SEO team online and we’ll reach out when it’s convenient for you. As always, there’s no “hard sell.” We are here to help you, whether you become a Symphonic client or not.
What The Heck Is BERT, Anyway?
Hailed as the most significant update to Google search in five years, BERT will impact at least 10 percent of searches this month, as Google tests the waters and gauges impact. Look for the search update to roll out on a much bigger scale in the weeks and months to come.
Let’s start at the beginning. In short, BERT stands for “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.”
Crystal clear, right?
Who is this Muppet and why is he making my job so hard?
A little over a year ago, a research paper dropped called “BERT: Pre-training of Deep Bidirectional Transformers for Language Understanding.” It didn’t make a big splash in the SEO world, except among the engineers and the algorithm wonks who live and breathe this kind of stuff. (For those wishing for a deeper dive, we highly recommend reading the full article and articles referenced in it.)
Essentially, the paper introduced a new “language representation model.” This is where artificial intelligence meets the spoken (and written) word. Key tasks like machine translation and speech recognition depend on these models, and so does the “Big G”: Google’s search engine.
Following publication of the research paper, the Google AI Research team announced BERT as an open source project. In true Google fashion, they wanted public input to improve their product, crowd-sourcing the legwork (your check’s in the mail, I’m sure).
Jacob Devlin (Google Researcher, BERT author) explains how he and his team* approach language representation in the context of online search.
As we head into 2020, BERT is about one thing: Helping Google’s algorithm understand the language we already use.
Last month, Pandu Nayak, A bigwig at Google, wrote:
Search is about understanding language. It’s our job to figure out what you’re searching for and surface helpful information from the web, no matter how you spell or combine the words in your query.
Nayak went on to give an excellent example of what the BERT change will mean for searchers. In the past, Google would substitue the term “stand-alone” in a result with the word “stand” in the query. But that isn’t the right use of the word “stand” in a query such as “do estheticians stand a lot at work?”. BERT models understand that “stand” is related to the concept of the physical demands of a job, and displays a more useful response.
BERT has helped us grasp the subtle nuances of language that computers don’t quite understand the way humans do. With the search query shown below, With the BERT model, we can better understand that “for someone” is an important part of this query, whereas previously we missed the meaning, with general results about filling prescriptions.
So How Should Small Businesses Respond?
What does this mean for our day-to-day marketing approach?
The short answer: Don’t try to optimize for the BERT update unless you haven’t been doing what you should have been doing all along, which is writing valuable content aimed at human readers.
“There’s some confusion about what BERT does,” says Levi Olmstead, owner/blogger at LeviOlmstead.com. “Danny Sullivan with Google says we shouldn’t try to optimize for the update … we should simply write valuable content aimed at human readers.”
Levi is correct. Here’s Sullivan’s actual Tweet:
But what is Levi’s take? Has he seen any changes in search rankings in the last couple of weeks? How should business owners react?
“I have seen that trusted publishers and sites have seen a slight boost,” Levi says. “But overall, I agree with Danny. I think SEO is about creating the best content for readers that matches their exact intent behind their search—combined with a great user experience on a site’s design and search navigation.
‘From a content creator’s perspective, those two are the most important aspects to focus on, and I wouldn’t worry about the BERT update too much. Obviously SEOs and content marketers should research what BERT is to help them understand the update, but any changes to day-to-day content marketing shouldn’t change much, if at all.”
Ignite Visibility, the digital marketing agency based in San Diego, CA, published an excellent guide that includes a section on how BERT affects SEO. Their take is as follows:
Marketers can also gain a leg up by incorporating dedicated FAQ sections, focused not just on keyword density but quality answers. As far as featured snippets, marking up pages with FAQ, How-to, and Q&A schema is recommended for increasing your page’s likelihood of being picked up by BERT. Also of note, keep in mind that because featured snippets are picked up quite often in voice search results, the introduction of BERT will likely have a big effect on voice search as well.
Your Blog Will Be More Important To Your Business Than Ever Before
At the end of the day, you should keep doing what you’re already doing.
IF YOU ARE DOING THE RIGHT THING, that is.
What’s the “right thing,” you ask?
In a word, blogging.
Here at Symphonic, I can honestly say that most of our clients don’t really WANT to start a blog. And I don’t blame them. They got into their industry because they are passionate about law, software, medicine, finance, etc. They never wanted to get into the publishing business. It’s just another headache for them.
The advice I have for them? Don’t think of it as a “blog.” Don’t all it “content” if you don’t like to think of it that way.
It’s your site, so the search engine optimized collateral you put out into the world can be called whatever you like. Think of it as a valuable source of information for your customers. It’s a place on the Internet where you can answer all the questions potential customers always ask.
What questions do people ask you in the “real world”? What questions are people emailing you to ask again and again? What questions do people call you (and interrupt you) to ask over and over?
Those questions are the topics you should address with your SEO campaign. Whether they’re at the start of their buyer journey (and siply seeking information) or whether they are ready to buy, customers need information.
And your articles give them that information. These articles also give you a chance to position your company as the expert with all the answers.
Remember, a lot of people (especially in the stage where they’re simply comparison shopping) aren’t going to call you. Your website needs to anticipate their questions. Your articles need to answer the questions they have, vetting and pre-qualifying your leads and acquainting them with your products and services.
Still not convinced? Google has a free course about the importance of content marketing here. So you don’t have to take our word for it. This stuff is important to Google, where the vast majority of online searches are happening.
No time for Google’s course? Check out this video from Exposure Ninja, a UK-based digital marketing agency, on the importance of blogging for business. Although it does not address the BERT SEO update directly, it addresses all the fundamental “best practices” to keep in mind:
As Tim (head Ninja) explains in the video, you need to mix the useful information you’re giving people with clear and relevant calls to action.
- Make sure someone else proofreads your work. It takes two sets of eyes!
- Use images, gifs and (if appropriate) memes to break up the wall of text.
- Use resources like Canva to help with graphics (it’s easy and free to have a basic account).
- Use resources like Grammarly if you need help with grammar and spelling.
- Publish regularly, but prioritize quality over quantity. “Quantity” refers to the number of articles you publish and to the number of words in any given article.
Start With A Content Calendar
Over and above the core site pages such as “about us,” “contact us,” etc., your blog (or whatever you’re calling your SEO content) gives your business the opportunity to provide the answers online searchers seek, delivering informational expertise that attracts new leads and sales.
But this content shouldn’t be created wily-nily.
Strategy doesn’t exist without a plan, and your SEO campaign doesn’t exist without a content calendar. An SEO-focused content calendar should reflect what users are searching for, with “evergreen” content (articles that aren’t news-based, meaning they will be helpful for years to come) published regularly on topics of interest to your target audience. Evergreen content is the basic element of higher search rankings!
Finding these topics means leveraging keyword (search query) research to find the topics most likely to bring in more traffic from search engines.
As the interview with Google Research Scientist Jacob Devlin (above) illustrates, BERT has an impact on search engine optimization, and as such, small businesses should take heed. However, SEO consultants (like me) are trying to get more customers to walk through the front door of your (online) business. BERT is an engineering innovation that’s about making doors easier to open.
Yes, BERT has an impact on SEO and on small businesses. But the ways business owners should have been engaging with their audience online won’t be changing any time soon.
BERT is more of a wake-up call for those of you adhering to the old ways (keyword stuffing, optimizing for a single “focus keyword” (looking at you, Yoast), and over-focusing on word count).
If you’re doing things the right way, keep doing them. I think BERT will push the tricksters and black-hat SEO folks further down the search results.
Take action today with your PPC campaigns, SEO, email marketing and more. You can raise your business profile online and deliver what your market wants. If you need strategies to do this that are tailored to your business and your goals, contact Symphonic today and we’ll give you a free consultation on how you can engage with customers online in your specific industry.
* In addition to Jacob Devlin, interviewed in the video above, the authors of “BERT: Pre-training of Deep Bidirectional Transformers for Language Understanding.” were:
- Ming-Wei Chang
- Google Research Scientist
- Kenton Lee
- Google Research Scientist
- Kristina Toutanova
- Google Research Scientist