In October 2019, Google announced the arrival of a search update called “BERT”. The revelation immediately sparked curiosity––and a sense of nervousness. Would this Google BERT update be an improvement? Would it throw the digital marketing world into chaos?
What was about to change?
Google’s Initial Descriptions: A More Human Touch
Google had been saying for roughly a year that BERT was on its way. Their press releases at the end of 2018 promised the incorporation of a few new techniques. These improvements would help to understand searches with the type of subtlety that humans have when they use language (but in a way that machines rarely do).
In the end, the update would do a better job of understanding the real intent of user searches, and hopefully produce more relevant results in the process.
Will This Ruin What We Already Built?
Of course, for people who specialize in creating content for the web, there were still plenty of questions.
Of particular concern were the changes that this would have on web content marketing. Would Google’s new analytics completely change the rankings? Would it undo all the hard work that had been done by marketers, or by writers who created content with an eye toward SEO?
Fortunately, it’s not the end of the world (not even close).
In fact, there’s a lot to like about the new Google BERT update. Now that BERT has finally arrived, we can better understand it by looking at these three essential points.
#1 – What Is BERT?
If all this is a little new to you, don’t fret. Many typical users haven’t even noticed the difference that’s come with the new update.
But it still has quietly been helping produce better search results.
“B” Is for “Bidirectional”
BERT is an acronym, standing for “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers”.
Fortunately, that chunk of technological jargon just happens to spell out the name of a Sesame Street character (although we think that may have been intentional, and not just dumb luck).
But “be” that as it may, the meaning behind this term has profound implications.
The important word here is “bidirectional.”
Although the term “bidirectional” can have a few different meanings in searches, in this particular case, it means that Google uses the entire sentence in order to figure out the meaning of a particular word.
Take It to the Bank
As an example, let’s consider the word “bank.”
“Bank” could mean the place where you go to deposit a check. Or it could mean the bank of a river.
How does a machine tell the difference?
In a unidirectional pattern, the machine looks at each word in the context of what has already come before it in the sentence.
If you use the phrase “I accessed my bank account”, the machine will guess your meaning based on the first part: “I accessed my…”
But what if you said “I went to the bank…”? This could mean either a river or a building.
With a bidirectional approach, a machine also looks at the words that come after (“account”), in order to give additional data points and increased accuracy. The consequence is more accurate search results that are based on the entire sentence.
When it comes to creating content for searches, this is a huge benefit. Searchers will be able to find relevant sites more quickly, and if your site is what they’re looking for, they will arrive on your doorstep that much faster.
#2 – How Does the Google BERT Update Work in Action?
In order to understand what’s right about BERT, we first need to take a look at what would frequently go wrong before the update.
The Brazilian Traveler
One of Google’s examples is the phrase “2019 brazil traveler to usa need visa”.
If you and I read this phrase, we can probably identify the section “traveler to usa” as being vitally important. The traveler is going to the U.S., so it means the traveler is likely coming from Brazil, and also needs a visa in order to make the trip.
This is not a natural phrase one would blurt out in conversation.
Still, it’s entirely the sort of thing that a searcher would type into a Google query box, and while most English speakers would be able to figure the meaning out fairly quickly, this is the sort of thing that used to cause Google a problem.
Paying Attention to Prepositions
Before the update, Google linked to an article that gave advice for U.S. citizens who wanted to travel to Brazil––travelers going in the opposite direction from the one suggested by the search.
With the Google BERT update, it now pairs the search with a result explaining how Brazilians can get travel visas to visit the U.S.
So what changed? BERT now looks more closely at prepositions: “to” or “from” or “by”.
While often tiny, these words can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
Another search example was “can you get medicine for someone pharmacy.”
This is a little more normal, and if you and I heard someone say it, we’d probably know that the addition of “for someone” implied “for someone else” and not only the person asking the question.
Before the change, Google simply gave a result that told a searcher how to get a prescription filled. The real question, “how to get medicine for someone (else)”, wasn’t the result until after the BERT update.
Do Estheticians Stand a Lot at Work?
Another excellent example from Google has to do with the search “do estheticians stand a lot at work”.
Like the word “bank” in our earlier example, “stand” can also have multiple meanings.
It can mean to stand on two feet, or to stand for something. It can mean to stand (or to be unable to stand) something, in terms of “being able to put up with it.” It can refer to an object, like a night stand. Or you can stand something on its side… you get the idea.
Before the update, Google didn’t realize what this meant, and matched the query with “stand-alone esthetics schools”, which is plainly not what the question was about.
After BERT, this search phrase now lands on a link that explains the physical demands of being an esthetician, which is a significant improvement.
#3 – What Do I Need to Do Differently?
If you primarily use Google to conduct searches, there’s very little you need to change.
If you primarily use Google to create content for searchers… there’s also very little you need to change.
The whole point of BERT is to make it easier for users to search the internet in a more intuitive and natural way.
Keywords and SEO will still be important. But the most fundamental concept is to continue writing content that will be read by human eyes––not just by a search engine.
More Natural Long-Tail Keywords
If anything, writing will become even easier.
Web content is occasionally forced into some rather stilted writing. Not all keywords feel natural. Searchers frequently type longer searches in a sort of search engine shorthand, which can sometimes cause writers to create copy that mimics this, rather than normal speech.
The more natural these searches can become, the less difficult it will be to write articles that are a seamless match.
For a long time, Google has been aware of this common problem. They even have a name for it.
Around Google, it’s known as as “keyword-ese.”
Searchers are forced to use unnatural phrasing when they need to help the machine understand exactly what they’re saying.
The Google BERT update is a step on the path to completely eliminating this problem. The better it understands the meaning behind the search, the less keyword-ese will be necessary.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
All in all, the BERT update gives us not only a clue about the next few years, but the long-term as well.
Google is moving search technology toward a more intuitive, user-friendly system. Phrases can be more like standard speech. Results will be more easily understood.
For writers and users both, entire process just became a little more human.
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