Google's BERT update_Living_Online

Google has released a new update known as BERT to help improve its ability to better understand human language in organic search results – so you’d better watch your language.

Rolled out in late October 2019, BERT has been labelled as Google’s biggest algorithm update since RankBrain – a machine learning algorithm which aims to better understand queries and content on a page. Whilst BERT does not replace RankBrain (or other language algorithms), it does support this activity, affecting 1 in 10 searches and the way websites rank for longer, more conversational queries.

So what is BERT exactly?

BERT, which stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers has been described as a neural network-based technique for training and supporting natural language processing. Similar to the way chat bots are trained to understand human search queries (as covered previously in our previous article about chat bot marketing), BERT is tailored towards providing ‘context’ around search queries, so browsers are matched the the most suitable website results according to their exact enquiry.

In a nutshell, BERT is helping Google to become more human with a better understanding of conversational language and natural everyday phrasing – very similar to the way humans learn a new language in both formal and conversational elements.

Described in detail on Google’s blog by Vice President of Search, Pandu Nayak, the update was focused on understanding ‘language’ to help guide browsers, in particular with searches that Google hadn’t seen before. Nayak describes this below as a social responsibility.

“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.”

Organic searching with Google's BERT update

So how Does BERT Work Exactly?

The latest update will affect organic ranking results and feature snippet text, with long-tail search queries now becoming a more apparent search engine optimisation (SEO) strategy for sites wanting to rank for specific phrase-based search terms. Terms that specifically have a conversational tone or intent.

BERT models are able to consider context in search terms by looking at the words which appear before and after key words, leading to ‘intent’ to better match the browser with an ideal search result. Prepositions such as ‘for’ and ‘to’ will now begin to become a much more important ranking factor in typical searches due to their influence on context.

Below are two examples of how the BERT update is now affecting search engine results pages, or SERPs:

BERT Google Changes_brazil traveler

The above search for “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa” previously returned results showing the process of US citizens travelling to Brazil, as opposed to the other way around. The word ‘to’ becomes a key word for context, returning a very different result from the new BERT results.


BERT Google Changes_pharmacy medicine

The operative word of ‘for’ becomes key in the above search for “Can you get medicine for someone pharmacy”. Prior to the BERT update, this reasonably vague search would have returned general results for filling a prescription in a pharmacy, without realising the intent of the search in fact being to pick up a relative’s prescription.

Our ‘Search Society’

The ever-evolving Google landscape continues to grow and integrate itself within our daily lives. From finding a local restaurant, to plugging in GPS details, or researching your next holiday destination, we’ve been programmed to turn to Google Search to find the information we are looking for.

When we type in our queries, we are in effect talking to an algorithm which matches our search to the most “relevant” website based on an extensive number of factors. With over 3,200 algorithm updates reported on average each year, it’s clear to see the importance Google places on continually improving this process to ensure a smooth user experience.

The latest BERT update will aim to tackle this head on, resulting in less irrelevant search results being showcased to browsers, supporting our ‘time poor’ society of finding relevant information easily and without delay.

“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.”

– Pandu Nayak (VP Of Search, Google).

Context Is King

In what is seen as a sizeable shake-up to the online community, the new update now places a greater importance on quality content and well-worded copy writing, helping to connect browsing customers to the right online businesses. It’s not the first time we’ve heard of BERT either, as Google introduced the neural network-based pre-training technique on its AI blog back in November 2018.

In the meantime, the search giant has been finessing the inner workings of this update, which is said to now impact 1 in 10 searches online.

Described as one of the most sizeable steps forward in terms of contextual-based search engine marketing in the past 5 years, online businesses need to start watching their language within content to allow for these changes.


Online searches with Google

BERT Is Great For Browsers But What About Businesses?

Google’s latest change is ultimately to service browsers in a way that better matches their search queries to the right results. However, this presents a challenge to business owners and online marketers to maintain best practise with their current SEO strategies.

How will the update affect your business? What needs to change? Can you still rely on traditional SEO techniques?

If you’re in charge of SEO for your brand or client, or you’re working with a digital marketing agency like our team at Living Online, there is no need to panic or reinvent the wheel. Modern day SEO techniques are still relevant, and if you’re working with a team who have their finger on the pulse, some tweaks to your content will ensure you’re up to speed with the latest development.

Having said that, Google have formally stated that there is no real way to optimise your site for BERT. Instead, it is suggested to keep things simple and to just write for humans (as opposed to machine language) as the new change is tailored to the search activity of Google’s users rather than the algorithm itself.

Whilst there are other factors at play which will become affected by the update, the good news is, the strategy is reasonably straightforward. Keep your content “all-natural” and create regular, meaningful and engaging content for actual human beings.

Group of people searching online with Google

In summary

We are excited about Google’s latest advancement in the ever-growing search landscape, as this will ensure less irrelevant matched queries and better quality traffic from organic search.

The challenge to remain relevant and competitive in a growing online marketplace is still very real, so marketers will need to adapt their strategy to suit. With over 200 factors affecting your website’s organic ranking, there is a lot to think about.

If you’re in need of a team of Search Engine Optimisation experts to help you maintain a competitive online presence, we can help. We welcome you to contact us today for a discussion on how best to optimise your website in light of these recent changes.