An in-depth look at Google’s BERT update

Feb 5, 2021 by
An in-depth look at Google’s BERT update

For the last 12 months, SEO has been subtly changed from the ground-up by Google’s BERT algorithm update; an update so profound that it is thought to have heavily impacted at least 10% of all searches. But what is BERT exactly? And how does it affect you?

Getting to know BERT

BERT is (as you probably guessed by this point) an acronym that stands for “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.” To many of us, that phrase might start ringing the word salad alarm bells but all it means is that Google has adjusted its algorithm to better understand and process natural language. This means it can contextually read search queries to offer more relevant results.

According to Google themselves, it represents the biggest leap forward for the company in five years. They explain: “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.”

It does this by utilising the latest deep learning technology and taking into account natural language prepositions, which can have a major impact on the kind of results that get turned up. It’s an algorithm that helps the search engine not only understand what a query means but the content of the search and other subtle nuances too. It means, in essence, that the results are meant to be more focused, more precise and more authoritative. It also means, however, that SEOs have really had their work cut out for them.

What does it mean for SEO?

By its very nature, the update has had a larger impact on long-tail keywords than short-tail keywords, so if you deal primarily in long-tail keywords then you’re going to have to start being a little more clever and exacting with them. Word order and things such as adverbs and prepositions need to be taken into account now and that’s going to be a tough pill for some to swallow.

It’s a lot harder to optimise for BERT, which means a shift in focus towards better and more relevant content, which is honestly the way the industry has (thankfully) been moving for the past few years anyway and is the strategy we’ve been using for our clients for years now too. It’s going to mean producing content that can respond accurately to searcher intent and that can satisfy specific motivations. That’s actually going to prove quite helpful to brands whose niche is very specific.

It’s also had a significant impact on featured snippets, which is a tool more and more of us are utilising these days as we begin to understand just how powerful they can actually be.

Strategy shift

For those that haven’t done so already, the key message here is to focus all SEO strategies around more specific and relevant content; not keyword density. It also means creating more diverse content that reaches a broader range of individuals through a broader range of channels. Being more specific is rarely a negative thing so don’t despair.

Just focus more heavily on your briefs and think about who you’re targeting. It’s honestly the way SEO should have been working from the very start. About time it got its act together!