Featured Image

BERT and… SEO (You were expecting Ernie?)

In the olden days of a few years ago, everyone was stressing about keywords when looking at Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

What keywords are you targeting? How often do they appear and how prominent are they in your content?

Keywords provided not only a focus for the content, but also acted as beacons to search engine bots looking to index your website.

Some SEO experts recommended bloating your content with singular and plural versions of your targeted keywords. Still others instructed using common misspellings, too, just in case. Anything to use the system to your advantage.

But then BERT entered the metaphorical room. BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) is changing (for the better) how we think of and act on SEO.

In short, it changes our mindset from “how search engines look at our content” to the more important “how users (i.e., potential customers) look at our content.”

What is BERT?

BERT is a newish, open-source AI “neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) pre-training” that Google uses for its searches. In 2019, BERT was responsible for about 10% of all Google searches. One year later, as announced during Google’s Search On event, BERT is handling almost 100% of English-based searches.

BERT is optimized for “for longer, more conversational queries,” as opposed to just quick search terms. In very simplistic terms: rather than just analyzing content based on locating keywords within it, BERT is looking at how the words interact with each other in a sentence, both from left to right and right to left. Or, in other words, what the sentence is actually about.

By understanding the context of content, BERT can better evaluate the quality of the content, especially when considering incoming search queries. What this means is, search engine results pages (SERPs) are getting more and more accurate. And when SERPs are more accurate, users are happier.

Why is understanding BERT important to SEO?

Basically, BERT was designed and trained to digest content the same way a person would. And people don’t tend to ask each other one- or two-word questions. You don’t look at your friends, for example, and say, “Best restaurant.” Instead, you ask, “Where is the best restaurant in this area for getting some delicious tacos?”

Before BERT, searches would take your “best restaurant” and deliver results based on that short-tail keyword. If the permissions were there to collect other information (e.g., your location), search would also absorb any other data about you before displaying SERPs.

But now that BERT’s on the scene, it can handle more complex and conversational searches. Using the previous example, BERT parses the question, “Where is the best restaurant in this area for getting some delicious tacos?” and understands the relationships between “best restaurant,” “in this area,” and “tacos.” It knows the search is for all of these put together, compares the search criteria with all its learned knowledge of web-based content, and delivers better and more precise SERPs.

“…You could say that [BERT’s] kind of going in the direction of decreasing the importance of exact matches for your keywords in your content…. But it’s not that that is the goal of these algorithms. But rather our goal is to understand the big vast amount of content out there a little bit better so that we can show the right versions to users when they ask.”

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

In essence, BERT is added AI “brain” power to support the digital assistant revolution. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant—every major platform seems to have its own speech-powered assistant. Voice search is being used more and more. Microsoft’s 2019 Voice Report found that 72% of respondents have used digital assistants for search. It’s a good bet, too, to expect the future of search to eventually become fully voice driven.

Leveraging BERT’s strengths in your favor

Adapting your SEO plan for the BERT revolution is actually pretty easy. We break it down into three simple steps:

1. Hunt long-tails.

Keyword research is still important. You need to know what terms your users are searching, so you can craft your content more appropriately and strategically. But when deciding what terms to focus on, look to long-tail keywords.

These phrases are more in tune with how voice search users search for information AND for how BERT processes content. Long-tail keywords are also inherently more specific, which means users who find your content will be better matches for consumers of your content.

2. Write like you speak.

Since BERT analyzes the relationships of words in your content to determine meaning, it only makes sense to create content that is more conversational. But conversational doesn’t just mean including lots of slang or funny expressions—it means language that is more accessible than formal academic writing. Content that is okay having short sentences. Why not? Content that can end in a preposition, because that might be exactly what users are searching for. Contact that can start with “and” or “because.” Because conversational content is simply clear writing that anyone can understand.

3. Share your content on social media.

Consuming content is often a social activity. Indeed, a report from Backlinko shows that voice search results have a large amount of social media engagement. So, sharing your content on social media is no longer just about enticing users to visit and providing added value—BERT likes it too. An interesting side fact from that report: users are also eating up long form content, which almost seems contradictory to social media-sized brevity. The overall verdict seems to be: write quality content, write a lot of it (both in quantity and length), and share it on social media.

Since BERT is different from how search engine algorithms have worked in the past, there’s really no more gaming the system. Just think of BERT as looking to deliver the best, most-applicable, and easiest-to-understand-and-use content to users. Which is exactly what your goal should be too. Create glorious content and BERT will make sure the right people find it and you.