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The Top 7 Things You Must Know About Google’s BERT Update

Google describes its new algorithm update as “one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of search.”

Scary stuff, right? Not really.

The update, known as BERT, is a good thing for SEO writers and content creators.

To understand why, let’s boil down the seven most important BERT takeaways for content marketers focused on SEO.

1. Know what BERT means

If you’re used to Google updates sounding more like cute animals and less like Sesame Street characters, you’re not alone. BERT is an unusual name because it’s an acronym for a new technology developed by Google’s AI team. The acronym is exceedingly nerdy: Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.

You can see why they call it BERT for short. At its core, Google uses this technology to better understand what’s known as natural language processing or NLP.

In layman’s terms, BERT is here to help Google understand language and phrasing more like a human and less like a robot. BERT is used to teach Google’s search function to interpret the nuances and context of search queries, and that’s a very, very good thing for SEO writers.

#BERT helps Google understand language more like a human and less like a robot, says @LiamCarnahan via @cmicontent. #SEO Share on X

That brings me to the most important lesson from this update.

2. Don’t change what you’re doing

Here’s the good news: There is absolutely no reason to worry about BERT, and if you create natural copy, then you have a big reason to celebrate.

In the past, a Google algorithm update sent the SEO world into utter chaos because Google was notoriously mysterious about some of its updates, which were causing websites to lose traffic at an alarming rate.

That isn’t happening this time.

The BERT update aims to do one thing and one thing only: Make it easier for users to search Google more naturally, and receive more relevant results based on those searches.

BERT does 1 thing: Makes it easier to search more naturally & see more relevant results, says @LiamCarnahan Share on X

Since writing content that shows up in search basically means matching your copy to the way people search, you should feel more comfortable writing naturally, especially when aiming for longer, more conversational keywords, and phrases.

Really, there’s nothing for you to do but keep writing in a natural way. Still not sure? Here’s what Danny Sullivan, Google’s public Search Liaison has to say about it:

3. BERT is all about context

If you want to understand what BERT is really about, one word summarizes the center of this update: context. And context is so, so, so important in everything we do and say.

BERT’s technology allows Google to better understand search queries as a whole rather than as a string of words.

People often type long strings of words into Google when searching for something. Prior to BERT, Google’s AI normally interpreted each of these words individually.

Now, Google does a better job understanding the words as they relate to each other.

Google does a better job understanding words as they relate to each other, says @LiamCarnahan via @cmicontent. #SEO Share on X

Here’s a great example from Google’s official blog on BERT. Let’s say you are considering working as an esthetician but are worried about how long you might be on your feet.

You go to Google and type in “Do estheticians stand a lot at work.”

Let’s focus on the word “stand” in that sentence. “Stand” can have a lot of meanings: You can take a stand. You can open a lemonade stand. You can put up a mic stand.

Of course, as humans, we know that in the example’s context, the searcher means “stand on one’s feet.”

Before BERT, Google didn’t understand this. It matched the word “stand” with “stand alone,” which obviously doesn’t have anything to do with what the searcher is looking for.

Now, thanks to BERT, the search results are much better:

4. BERT lets Google better understand prepositions

For all you word nerds, you might enjoy this little insight: BERT is helping Google better understand prepositions like “for” and “to” – arguably the most nuanced and confusing parts of English.

#BERT is helping Google better understand prepositions like “for” and “to” – arguably the most nuanced and confusing parts of English, says @LiamCarnahan via @cmicontent. #SEO Share on X

Though they may be small, prepositions can alter the meaning of a sentence. Google’s blog gives us another excellent example to illustrate what this means for search:

In this example, consider how important the word “to” is in the search query. The searcher specifies they are looking to travel from Brazil to the United States.

Before BERT, the searcher would have received a news article about the opposite: Americans traveling to Brazil. Not exactly helpful.

But now, Google understands the importance of “to” in this search and serves up a deliciously relevant result.

Once again, this is all a good thing for content marketers who create straightforward, easy-to-understand copy.

5. BERT only affects one in 10 searches now, (mostly) limited to U.S. English

If you’ve made it this far in the article, you shouldn’t be worrying too much about BERT. But if you’re still feeling anxious, here’s something else to set you at ease:

Right now, BERT is being tested on one of every 10 searches. This means 90% of searches still return results without BERT’s input.

On top of that, BERT is only used on U.S. English search results. If you work in a different language or are based in an English-speaking country outside of the United States, you won’t see much change at all (for now).

Of course, Google plans to roll out BERT in a much bigger way after this initial testing phase, but assuming it works like they say it will, this will be a good thing.

6. BERT works on featured snippets, including non-English languages

Details are scant about this, but BERT seems to be working hard on featured snippets – those quick results that often appear at the top of search results like this:

Google hasn’t said how BERT is used to improve featured snippets, but it’s safe to assume it’s similar to what BERT is doing overall: bringing more relevant results based on the context of a search query.

When it comes to featured snippets, BERT has made its international debut in the two dozen countries where snippets are already available.

7. Google is on a mission to eliminate “keyword-ese”

In its official blog post about BERT, Google references a phenomenon known as “keyword-ese.”

What is it? Essentially, it’s the awkward language and phrasing people often use when trying to get Google to understand what they’re saying.

For example, let’s go back to the example above about estheticians. If you weren’t happy with the results from “do estheticians stand a lot at work,” you might re-enter your search as, “do estheticians stand on their feet a lot at work.”

The second phrase might get you the results you want, but it’s not exactly a natural way to write.

With BERT, Google cuts down the use of “keyword-ese.” It says it clearly in its blog:

No matter what you’re looking for, or what language you speak, we hope you’re able to let go of some of your keyword-ese and search in a way that feels natural for you.

But Google acknowledges you’ll still stump Google from time to time. Of course, the folks at Google know this, but it suggests that BERT is just another step in the long march to make the search experience more human.

That’s pretty much it. If there’s one thing that you can take away from the BERT update as an SEO writer, it’s this:

Google WANTS you to write natural, user-friendly copy. It wants you to write with the reader, not Google, in mind.

.@Google wants you to write natural, user-friendly copy. Write with the reader, not Google, in mind, says @LiamCarnahan via @cmicontent. #writingtips Share on X

Yes, keywords still matter. But thanks to BERT, writers can worry less about forcing awkward keywords and phrases in their content just to appease the Google gods.

And that’s a good thing.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute