Why Everyone is Focused on BERT (and not Ernie)

Written by Caleb Knight

In October, Google rolled out its largest search algorithm update since RankBrain in 2015. Upon initial rollout in October, they deemed BERT to impact just 10% of all search queries. Now with a couple of weeks have gone by, we’re here to give you the lowdown on BERT and what it really means for your user experience.

Before we dive in, it may help to understand what BERT is—and no BERT is not the Sesame Street character. BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. In simpler terms, this is an algorithm made for deep learning that allows for a machine to better understand a sentence meaning by capturing contextual nuances. The key difference from past algorithms is that context ability in natural language processing. Google is getting better and better on serving up the specific content that you need from search results.

How BERT Looks In Action

Want to see BERT in action? Google’s very own blog by Pandu Nayak gives some great examples. One of the easiest examples to understand from this includes a common medical question/search query “Can you get medicine for someone pharmacy” in a before and after. Before BERT, your top result would be an article about getting a prescription filled at a pharmacy. After BERT, gives you the answer you’re looking for with an article by the Health and Human Services department saying “Can a patient have a friend or family member pick up a prescription?” See the difference?

Not only did the search results get an upgrade, but so did the featured snippets. Google’s blog post also gives an example of the query “parking on a hill with no curb.” While that might sound easy, Google previously only gave you information on how to park on a hill, ignoring the part about there being no curb. With BERT, it gives you a better demonstration of how to align your wheels when there is no curb. 

These upgrades to search results and featured snippets may not seem massive, but again, this is the biggest update in almost five years for Google algorithms. In the search engine world, that’s an eternity.

SEO Impact

When such an update happens, it’s easy for search engine marketers to get caught up in the changes and feel the need to recreate the wheel for it. Rest assured, digital marketing did not change in an instant with this update. Much like Google’s last update with RankBrain, there is no specific optimization to be done for BERT. Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Search Liasion, responded in a tweet saying “There’s nothing to optimize for with BERT… The fundamentals of us seeking to reward great content remain unchanged.” With that said, it’s better to focus on the content of website pages so that they give searchers and users exactly what they’re looking for.

You’re probably wondering “if BERT is for better search queries, what does that have to do with the content of your webpage?” Since BERT is designed to better process subtle contexts of languages, it’s important to make sure your content is aligned and crystal clear so that BERT can deliver it in the search queries you want to be featured in. Some of your more SEO savvy marketers may be thinking that that means longtail keywords (hyper-specific phrases) have increased in importance with BERT. Wrong. Again, since it’s a language processing tool, it’s about connecting the dots between what the user wants and the information needed.

Your Business and BERT

If your business or organization is left wondering what BERT means or need help with SEO elsewhere, check out our article on the SEO landscape in 2020. Our team of digital marketers at PHOS Creative is here to help you stand out in the digital sea of sameness.

Caleb Knight