Will Google’s latest BERT update affect your site rankings? article image

Will Google’s latest BERT update affect your site rankings?

Websites | 05/11/2019

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Contributor Phil Robinson. Partner, Founder + CE

In late October 2019, a major shift happened with the way that Google comprehends search phrases known as the BERT Update. Google is constantly making updates, to the point that Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted that they make 3 updates a day on average. Most of the time, these are small, unnoticeable changes, but every once in awhile there’s a major shift that drastically shakes up the search results like new ways pages are crawled or new innovations like the featured snippet. BERT is one of these big updates.

BERT  stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers–which sounds like they really wanted a specific acronym–an algorithm designed to better-understand search terms. With the new update, approximately 1 in 10 searches will be affected, and search engine results pages will have massive changes. This means that some pages that were ranking well are likely to fall, while others rise. Is there anything you can do to make sure your site is helped instead of hurt by BERT? 

What does the BERT update do? 

The primary goal of BERT was for Google searches to understand “longer, more conversational queries or searches where prepositions like ‘for’ and ‘to’ matter a lot to the meaning”. So what does that mean? As an example, if I was an American looking to move to New Zealand, I might search for “America move to New Zealand visa needed”.  Previously, Google wouldn’t know how to understand “to” in the sentence so results would be a mix of articles about visa options for Kiwis going to America  or visa options for Americans coming to New Zealand. Two very different sets of results. After the update, the results will only be the second option. 

This is great news for the end user. While shorter, concise keyword searches like “best pizza” aren’t likely to change, longer searches like “Where can I find the closest doctor for a sprained ankle” may have new results. For these longer terms, search results will be more relevant and it will take less time to discover the right keywords or phrase order for people to find what they want. Everyone will start seeing better, more accurate results. It also means that many pages that are currently ranking high might not be anymore. 

How can I optimise my content for BERT? 

The simple answer? You don’t. Google’s goal has always been to provide the best, most useful search results to its users. Ideally, there would be no keyword confusion and your search would return several different helpful results you could go through to find the information that you want. BERT helps by having a better understanding of natural, conversational language and nuance. This means that Google will be better at understanding individual words in your search and how they relate to each other. 

BERT and voice searches

Voice search as fluctuated in popularity over time, but is now steadily gaining popularity due to advancements in technology like SIRI, Google Voice Assistant, and Amazon Alexa. While BERT is still in the early days of release, changes to voice search are expected to be significant. The goal of BERT is to understand conversational language, and many people talk to their voice assistants more conversationally and in longer sentences; sentences that can now be understood better with the BERT update. This means voice search results should be more relevant and accurate now.

Will BERT affect business websites? 

Overall, BERT is a great advancement for users. But what about your business? Do you need to change the content on your site? You might need to change your written content because of BERT; it depends on the way that you wrote it in the first place. The best practice is to write your content for humans, not to try and trick Google. Writing content because it’s helpful for users is basically future-proofing it against algorithm updates, especially if you write for the user and manage to rank well. 

Writing for search engines, on the other hand, is an ever-changing game. Some people find exploits that trick Google by manipulating page layouts or by using other types of black hat SEO. And while these might seem to work short term, a major change to the search algorithm can cause all of those unhelpful, strangely-formatted pages to drop off the top results completely. 

What if I see some of my keywords drop places?

If you had some keywords drop in the results and you wrote the pages to be helpful, don’t panic right away! Take a look at your analytics and see if those pages were converting like they should. If you were getting high-traffic but few conversions or a high bounce rate, it could be because of terms that brought up your page that weren’t actually relevant. You might end up with fewer visitors, but those that come should be of higher quality. 

If this isn’t the case, take a close look at your content and to see if it’s actually high-quality and helpful with those keywords in mind. The easiest way is to go straight to the source and look at Google’s EAT Guidelines for high-quality content. By following those guidelines the best you can, you’re more likely to have content that will rank well with BERT and future updates. 

So how can you make BERT more likely to help than hurt your rankings? Make sure your content is high-quality and well-researched. Follow appropriate SEO guidelines. And write for humans! Of course, you could always contact the experts for blogs, copywriting, and other writing for your website and let us handle it for you and keep track of this and future updates. Get in touch now to get started. 

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