Fortunes were lost on past Google changes.
Purists cheered that search results became more helpful (they did), and business owners scrambled to keep up.
Now, Google is saying their latest search update is the “biggest leap forward in the past five years”.
So let’s figure out how this will affect your local business website.
What Is BERT?
To keep it simple, we can say that Google performs well for most searches.
You look for something, nine times out of ten you get a suitable and helpful answer.
But language itself is not so simple. Meaning is not always so obvious. And everyone asks questions in a slightly different way.
So BERT is the attempt of machine learning to allow computers to understand complex language.
The full name is Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.
Google has released a detailed explanation of the concept behind it and how it works. But we don’t have to get bogged down in all that.
We just need to understand the outcome on a basic level.
Google noticed that certain types of results were missing the point of what the searcher was looking for.
Pre-BERT: if someone searched for “brazil traveler to usa need a visa”, Google returned answers for an American visiting Brazil. Totally unhelpful.
Post-BERT: the Google results now understand how important the “to usa” part is to the overall meaning, and now most of the results are about a Brazilian visiting America.
So results are improving in terms of weighing the importance of all the words in a search.
There was one really interesting takeaway from all this…
Leading up to the BERT update, Google researchers noticed that people were changing the way they asked questions.
The users were so used to the good-but-not-perfect way Google interpreted them, that they stopped asking questions like they would in a natural conversation. Instead, they started just stringing together keywords because that is what they felt Google wanted!
So the move to use BERT was an attempt to allow people to search Google in the same way they would talk to another human.
This means, since the change, some sites that showed up for certain searches won’t show up for those searches anymore.
Will Your Site Traffic Take A Hit From BERT?
Google predicts that BERT will affect about 1 in 10 searches.
With 5.6 billion daily searches, potentially 560 million of them could show different results after the BERT update.
But before you panic, it probably won’t affect many small business owners.
If you go by the example above, you’ll see that this update will have much more of an impact on informational-type searches. Process questions, starting research, and stuff like that.
Besides the occasional blog post, most pages on a local business website are not going to be purely informational on that level.
Plus, if you look at it from the angle of a searcher, the results just got a little more helpful.
So, if anything, it may help certain websites show up for the proper search (if they weren’t before).
And if your site stats somehow show a slight downturn after BERT, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Because if a page on your site showed up for a search it shouldn’t have, with info the searcher was not looking for, at best they clicked on your site then left immediately. That was not business-building traffic, that was fake traffic.
Okay, so now we know what BERT is. And we don’t have to worry that it will hurt our sites.
Let’s talk about improving websites in a BERT world.
How Can You Optimize For BERT?
There is no way to specifically optimize your site for the BERT update.
So there is no reason to run off to your SEO guy or website provider to do any scheming. Also, if a huckster approaches you saying he can optimize for BERT, you know he’s full of baloney.
Instead, you can tweak the way you think about websites and search results.
A mindset change will profit you a lot more, as Google continues to make these changes into the near future.
What I mean by that is you can double-down on writing like your customers speak, and by being as specific as possible.
For far too long we’ve thought about a website audience as an even split between robots and humans. Gotta put those little SEO “hacks” in there for the bots, and so on.
Now, when you update your site or add new info, you can focus entirely on the human audience.
So basically Google is trying to make it easier for you to be persuasive with the people reading your site, without having to divide your energy worrying about other stuff.
But let’s take three quick examples to really hammer the point home:
1. SEO “Experts” Over-Complicate Things
Danny Sullivan is the Search Liaison for Google. He had this to say about good content that shows up high in the search results:
“SEOs dig for layers that aren’t there… ‘Does good content mean 300 characters or 1000 characters?’ That makes me want to cry.”
What he means is that people look for trends and magic-pill answers instead of just being specific and helpful.
Let’s say most of the top ranking articles are over 1000 words. If you can answer a particular question in 300 words (and answer it well), you have done the best you can. You don’t need to pad it out with 700 more words of fluff to make it somehow turn into “good content that ranks”.
2. Blog Posts May Be The Best Way To Use The BERT Upgrade
I’m not saying that blogging is the secret to success for every local business website. Far from it.
But if you are already putting time or money into creating content for a blog, you should pick up clues from everything we’ve learned about BERT so far.
Skip the boring keyword-stuffing articles. The ones that sound like they were written by robots for robots.
Instead, I repeat, write very specifically and conversationally about a particular topic that your audience cares about.
3. Topics & Meanings… Not Keywords
This one is a little weird, so bear with me.
We use keywords as clues.
They help us narrow down what people care about, and then plan content around it.
In that context, of course, keyword research is helpful.
But before you drill into keywords, you typically pick a topic to begin. And after you pick a few keywords, you then have to write content that has a robust meaning.
That goes beyond just repeating your keywords over and over, obviously.
And a web page doesn’t just rank for a single keyword phrase. A helpful page can not only rank for several different (but related) keywords. It can also rank for a keyword even if the keyword itself does not appear in the content (this is rare, but it happens).
As search engines evolve, we are going to think of content based on semantic (meaning-based) searches rather than keyword-based searches.
I’m going to link you to a Youtube video if you want to flesh out this concept more.
It’s by a team of some of the most honest and helpful guys around when it comes to content marketing and SEO:
Anyway, no need to over-complicate things…
The new BERT update makes life a little easier for Google users, as it moves internet searching closer to everyday conversation. And that ultimately means you can focus on a website that communicates in a clear and helpful way to your ideal customers.