With the release of BERT in November 2019, SEO agencies have had to look more closely at the way they review a client’s content and keyword research with an overhaul mentality rather than small corrective measures after some of the previous updates. This is particularly so when considering the searcher’s intent and their client’s path to complete desired onsite actions.
What is the Google BERT update?
The focus of the BERT algorithm remains, as ever on good quality content. However, the thing that makes BERT different from the rest of the Google family of algorithm updates is its understanding of context.
BERT enables Google to determine relevance. It focuses on adjoining and precursory words that make up a search query such as conjunctions, prepositions, or any words that help to determine the context of the sentence. For example, “Where to buy cakes without gluten nearby.” Certainly, there are more eloquent ways to word searches, but we know that these are not always the searches that return the most results, invariably the long tail searches with good conversion potential are those that read like spoken word.
Since the BERT update, we see more priority by Google to understand the context within searches.
What does this mean for SEO agencies?
This update remedies two important things for Google:
It reduces the opportunity for keyword stuffing within context, giving priority to well-structured sentences. Google is tightening its belt on the manipulation of its systems. Almost all SEOs are guilty in some form of integrating keywords into sentences where they fit. Keywords affect readability, but the opportunity to integrate a high-volume search term to rank better was hard to resist.
The second, and almost more important, benefit of this update is the priority for long-tail keywords. If we had a nickel (let’s say a quid in this economy) for every time I heard a client say: “Why would we bother if it has low search volume?” SEO agencies have failed to educate and advise clients about the benefits of long-tail keywords. The advantage of course (in case you are unconvinced yourself) is that keywords are transactional, rather than navigational or informational searches that are better for site visibility and general traffic. These long-tail terms are usually made by searchers that have progressed further down the sale funnel and are searching with a more “ready to buy” mindset.
While Google has claimed this update will affect 10% of all searches, it is possible to assume that this represents the proportion of long-tail searches. In a nutshell, BERT helps Google return more targeted results and understand the users’ intent with more complex searches.
What will BERT mean in practice for SEO agencies?
BERT looks at the “relatedness” of terms using advanced computational linguistics developed by Google’s Pygmalion (the brains behind the development of Google Assistant) and any of Google’s algorithmic linguistic development.
An example that is splattered all over SEO agency blogs is the association of words like “bank” in search terms like “parking near a river bank.” Historically this search returned results for banks or if you were lucky banks nearby with parking. The association of “river” to “bank” was often missed as the associated linguistic processing was relatively undeveloped. This, along with the advancements of understanding in search term structure and words associated with one another, such as proximity terms, helps Google to understand better the search term as a whole phrase rather than picking up high-value words in isolation.
SEO agencies are going to have to reassess resources, particularly those of content creators. Many digital marketing and SEO agencies have focused on the sum of keywords coupled with the tone of voice, technical language and preference (not to mention client approval) when making large scale content edits on a client’s website. Many agencies work collaboratively with a content agency and freelancers for more in-depth content messaging, or have a small in-house content production. These players often have a decent conceptual understanding of SEO best practices but, in many cases, are not SEOs themselves. The disciplines of SEO and high-quality content are commonly divided, even though the partnership is imperative to find a webpage (with SEO) and to stay there (for the content) to address users’ intent. BERT will undoubtedly push SEO agencies to assess their interagency practices with a focus on how content and SEO-focused practitioners collaborate to provide the best for their clients.
The effect of BERT on SEO agencies
I work primarily with SMEs spanning industries from SaaS, tech, e-commerce and fast-moving consumer goods through to construction and training. From our observations, B2B and more technical or specialist services have been affected. These types of businesses use more complex language that relies on long-tail keywords to create opportunities and differentiate their services in the market. From the end of November 2019, many of the monitored keywords across multiple accounts that contain navigational or auxiliary contextual elements peaked and troughed. Improvements impacted the rank potential of mobile searches far more positively than desktop. With priority given to mobile-first indexing, this will not be surprising to agencies. It may suggest a move by Google to increase the lead gen and purchasing potential on mobile devices, but it is unconfirmed.
So what does it mean?
With BERT, SEOs will have to evolve their understanding of how searchers look for and find their client’s sites, how they navigate to them, as well as specific opportunities and difficulties about the client’s market. Two things are particularly important: content syntax and high-quality descriptive copy.
Content syntax to reflect complex searches now being understood by Google with a focus on parameters of a search that changes, obstructs or enhances the meaning of differing results. And providing the resources to add high-quality descriptive copy on home pages and landing pages will redefine the search parameters and address new requirements for complex search terms that promote and identify the value of the client’s USPs, products or services.
In short, we must understand our clients and their consumers a lot better. Keyword research can no longer be a scattergun approach combining terms of varying lengths for conversion potential, volume and visibility. The balance has shifted and high volume terms will lessen in value for ROI as usage and relevancy of results increases for users. Agencies should continue to optimize for short terms, but the complex understanding of this algorithm gives agencies a chance like never before; to tailor pages to serve far more specific intents with mutual benefits of higher rates of on-page action and user fulfillment.