Picture of BERT from Sesame Street


Google BERT Update

How Will It Affect Your Website Traffic?


If you keep your ear to the ground on all things SEO it would have been difficult to miss the rumblings over the last week caused by BERT.

Last week Google announced BERT – what they call the most important update since RankBrain launched 5 years ago – with an official Google estimate that it will likely effect 1 in 10 searches.

But what is it, how will it affect SEO in general and will it impact traffic to your website?


What is BERT?

BERT, which is a network-based technique for natural language processing, stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.

Sounds simple right?

Essentially it’s a deep learning algorithm related to natural language processing. It helps a machine to understand what words in a sentence mean, but with all a greater understanding of context.

This is what Google said:

“These improvements are oriented around improving language understanding, particularly for more natural language/conversational queries, as BERT is able to help Search better understand the nuance and context of words in Searches and better match those queries with helpful results.

Particularly for longer, more conversational queries, or searches where prepositions like “for” and “to” matter a lot to the meaning, Search will be able to understand the context of the words in your query. You can search in a way that feels natural for you.”

At this point I should make clear that the update only impacts US (English) searches – ie, searches made in the US in English.


Google will be rolling this out across different languages and locales over time. So expect to see BERT hitting the UK very soon!

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BERT in action

Here are some of the examples published by Google that demonstrate BERT’s ability to understand the intent behind your search.

(Due to the nature if Google and the first phase roll-out to the US these examples are heavily focused on the US search market)

Here’s a search for “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa.”

“The word “to” and its relationship to the other words in the query are particularly important to understanding the meaning. It’s about a Brazilian traveling to the U.S., and not the other way around.

Previously, our algorithms wouldn’t understand the importance of this connection, and we returned results about U.S. citizens traveling to Brazil. With BERT, Search is able to grasp this nuance and know that the very common word “to” actually matters a lot here, and we can provide a much more relevant result for this query.”

“Let’s look at another query: “do estheticians stand a lot at work.” Previously, our systems were taking an approach of matching keywords, matching the term “stand-alone” in the result with the word “stand” in the query. But that isn’t the right use of the word “stand” in context. Our BERT models, on the other hand, understand that “stand” is related to the concept of the physical demands of a job, and displays a more useful response.”

“Here are some other examples where BERT has helped us grasp the subtle nuances of language that computers don’t quite understand the way humans do.”

“With the BERT model, we can better understand that ‘for someone’ is an important part of this query, whereas previously we missed the meaning, with general results about filling prescriptions.”

“While the previous results page included a book in the ‘Young Adult’ category, BERT can better understand that ‘adult’ is being matched out of context, and pick out a more helpful result.”

The BERT update doesn’t just apply to search results, it also applies to rich snippets as you can see from the example provided by Google below:

For example, if you searched for “parking on a hill with no curb”, Google used to place too much emphasis on the word “curb” and not enough emphasis on the word “no”.

That’s a fairly fundamental flaw!

What BERT isn’t

As is always the case with any Google update there is a lot of hysteria and misinformation around BERT.

MYTH : You should optimise your site for long tail queries

It’s not that your site has to be long tail search friendly. BERT is about Google understanding what user’s mean and THEN being able to connect that to more specific information that already exists on your website.

MYTH : BERT’s Effect is Small

There are some who are advancing the idea that this algorithm is not particularly significant. Yet Google is on record stating that this update affects one out of ten English language search queries in the United States of America. Ten percent is a significant amount of search queries.

I believe the perception that this update is fairly insignificant stems from the fact it doesn’t hit the sought after 2 or 3 word keyphrases so coveted by SEO’s and marketers.

MYTH: BERT Makes Stop Words Important

The Google announcement used as examples search queries that have their context influenced by the words “to” and “from.”

Remember, its the interpretation of the actual search phrase that is being updated and not the interpretation of your websites content.

Myth: BERT is the Biggest Update of All Time

It’s been reported in many articles that BERT is one of the biggest updates of all time. That statement is based on a misinterpretation of a press release issued by Google.

This is what the press release stated:

“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.”

That five year reference is an important one and clearly points to the introduction of RankBrain.

What will BERT mean to you?

It’s important to understand that BERT analyses search queries, not the content on a page.

So, while there’s not much you can do to optimise for BERT directly, it does means you should focus on your efforts to create relevant, quality content.

As Google gets better at understanding natural language and eliciting the actual meaning and context behind its many search queries, it will also get better at finding the pages that best fit those queries.

That means that poorly-written, thin content likely won’t fit the bill.

Instead, focus on creating content geared towards the actual questions your audience is asking.

What should you do to prepare for BERT

A smart move would be to look at how you can incorporate dedicated FAQ sections (only where relevant) focused not on keyword density but on actual quality answers.

Start looking at your featured snippets. Mark up pages with FAQ, How To, Q&A Schema to increase your pages likelihood of being picked up by BERT.

Featured snippets are often picked up in voice search, the introduction of BERT will have a huge impact on voice search, I would almost go so far as to say BERT has been designed almost entirely with voice search in mind. The way you search by typing is a million miles away from how you do a voice search which is much more conversational.

Google has already stated there is no real way to optimise for BERT.

Its function is to help Google better understand searchers’ intent when they search in natural language. It can’t be stressed enough that you should focus on writing great content — for real people – write your best content for your website visitors and customers.

The biggest thing to do in preparation for BERTs arrival to the UK is to get a baseline of your current website traffic and compare this to the days and weeks after the BERT UK implementation.

And make sure you have published content that answers the questions of your target audience!

I expect sites that have lots of good content in the form of well-written, long-form guides to be the winners of this update.

What to do if you see negative impact

If you see a drop in traffic, I would not recommend making any dramatic changes until the dust settles – Google has a history of rolling out updates, then reversing or tweaking them in the weeks after.

If the traffic reduction sticks – I’m going to be controversial here but this may not necessarily be a bad thing long term.

If BERT stops inaccurate search traffic from hitting your website this is a good thing right?

If a user search lands the searcher on your website and they then just bounce back then this is going to negatively impact your site skew your user metrics and increase your bounce rate.

In other words, it is unlikely that the traffic converted into a conversion.

If you want to take a deep dive and see what traffic has taken the hit in order to potentially polish up the impacted content there are some things you can do.

  1. Identify the queries or keywords that you are causing the traffic drop.

This is easily done in Google Search Console:

Select Performance from the left hand menu:

Then change the criteria to Compare:

Select the range you wish to Compare:

Then select Queries to see the search data across your comparison range:

This will show you which search queries you should investigate.

2. Determine what (and who) is ranking for those queries now

Search the queries in Google and see what types of content are ranking now.

  • Is it a different content type?
  • Is it bringing up a different angle?
  • Is it answering a slightly different question?

3. Change or tweak content

Tweak your content to improve the content that is now ranking, or create new content that goes beyond the ranking content.

If they have a 10 point FAQ – make a 20 point FAQ.

But always write in a natural, but authoritative style – and no keyword stuffing!

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I’m Nigel, Founder of Devon Media, a Devon based digital media agency.

With over 20 years consultancy experience working with blue chip companies I’m a natural problem solver – a perfect character trait for the ever changing landscape of SEO.

Feel free to ask me anything, always happy to help out – nigel@devon.media