Meet BERT: Google’s Latest Algorithm Update

By Melanie Coleman

Those in the SEO and search space know that Google has long been working to understand and respond to what users want. This is an incredibly complex issue, especially as our use of technology changes. When desktops reigned supreme, users learned to use “computer speech” when searching in any browser—that’s why as a user you know to type in “coffee near me” instead of “which coffee shops are open in my area.” However, as mobile devices have taken over the market, more and more of our natural language has made it back into search, increasing the complexity of the issue for search engines.

For years, Google—never one to back down from a challenge—has been consistently updating its algorithm in an attempt to stay in front of user needs and drive best practices for websites. It’s the reason keyword stuffing is a thing of the past, why websites are created for mobile users—and having relevant content is more imperative than ever.

Consider a brief history of (some) major Google algorithm updates:

Google updates its algorithm daily, with major core updates happening a few times a year. Not all updates have a name; only the ones Google feels to be the biggest shifts tend to get named as a critical update.

In the latest major algorithm update, Google officially introduced the world to BERT, an acronym representing a long, hard-to-understand term: bidirectional encoder representations from transformers. Ultimately, what this means is that Google has updated the algorithm to take into account the nuances of natural language, particularly prepositions, like “for” and “to.”

Prior to the introduction of BERT, for example, if you were to search for “parking on a hill with no curb,” the Google results would pull up how to park on a hill, highlighting throughout the search result any references to “curb.” After BERT, Google understands that “with” and “no” are important to the query, so now it’ll return results explaining how to park on a hill with no curb, as illustrated below.

What does this mean for your website?

Though this is a major change to the Google algorithm, it really impacts the user experience more than websites. If your website is already written with the user in mind—that is, it provides relevant content that answers user questions and tries to anticipate user needs—then there is nothing to do in response to BERT. If your website content is written more for your internal audience, such as employees and compliance, rather than current and potential customers, then this is another reminder to revisit your website content.

Though BERT was designed to improve search results for users, it is also making the organic search space more competitive. As page-one search results are more defined, we cannot rely on catchall content to show up for any user query.

Here are some quick tips to update your content:

  • Blog – Start one if you don’t have one. This is the easiest way to ensure you are adding new, relevant content without having to restructure your site. If you already have a blog, revisit old posts to see if they could benefit from a refresh that will bring new, relevant keywords into the mix.
  • Product Pages – Many banking terms go unexplained with the assumption that everyone knows what they mean. But that is far from the truth. Most of the millennial and Gen Z populations don’t need a check book, so “checking” is a meaningless term to them. Also, if you ask the population under 35, many of them might be unable to tell you the difference between a CD and a money market account, or why they should consider either one. Take a moment to revisit your products from the perspective of younger generations and learn what questions need to be answered to ensure those generations understand the value and benefits of your products.

As 2019 wraps up, refreshing website content and making sure your website follows best practices across the board should be a primary goal for 2020. Doing so will help your institution remain competitive in the page-one organic space.

Melanie Coleman is a digital strategist at Pannos Marketing based in Manchester, NH. Pannos Marketing is an award-winning, full-service communications firm specializing in strategic marketing, public relations, social media, e-commerce and website solutions for financial institutions. Email: mcoleman@pannosmarketing.com.

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