Hey Bert! How Do You Affect SEO?

Published on November 6, 2019 by Thomas Rowson


If I was to say ‘Bert’ to you, chances are you’re either thinking Sesame Street or Mary Poppins. However, it’s being said a lot over at Google at the moment, and not because they’ve suddenly started listening to a load of songs penned by twentieth century German jazz instrumentalist and composer Bert Kaempfert. No, it’s actually because in this, the fiftieth anniversary of mankind’s giant leap to stand on the moon, Google has introduced what is described as their ‘biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search’ as a whole.

The BERT Update

But what actually is Bert? Well, in essence, it is the next step forwards in helping search engines in actually understanding what you mean by your search term. Meaning that you can type more normally than the weird searches we all do sometimes, to make the search engine understand what we are actually trying to find. Understanding is the key word there; this should make it easier to be understood than trying to decode Dick Van Dyke’s accent as the chimney sweep.

Bert, or rather BERT, is an acronym that stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. In a nutshell, it means that Google now looks at not just the words in your search, but how they relate to each other. We take this for granted in language, but it’s actually quite a difficult thing for a machine, algorithm, or device to fathom. The way that each word connects to those around it unlock so much of the meaning and understanding in a sentence. And with that, the intent behind the search becomes that much clearer.

How BERT works

Google gave us a number of examples to help explain how the BERT AI influences search. Before BERT, if you were to search for ‘2019 Brazil traveler to USA need a visa’, you’d get results all to do with advice for US citizens travelling to Brazil. For us as people, that’s obviously wrong; but for Google as an algorithm, the connection is strong. Try looking again at the sentence but one word at a time, without connecting them together – if you squint hard enough and try to imagine that you’re a robot, you might be able to see why Google sees it that way. The word ‘to’ is so important in that, and connects the two sides of the sentence with meaning. With BERT, you’ll get results about needing a visa to go to the US if you are traveler from Brazil; it links it all together, it sees how the bits relate, and it understands what you actual want. BERT gets you the answer you’re looking for.

BERT is the biggest change to how search works since RankBrain, which was the first time Google used AI to help understand the humans and their search intent. RankBrain is still part of the search process, and BERT is not here to replace it. It’s a bit like having an Amazon Fire TV Stick; it doesn’t replace your normal TV channels, but it does help top it up to get what you really want.

This isn’t just being described as huge because of the impact in understanding, but because of how many searches will be influenced by BERT. Currently, the roll-out is just in English, but it will spread over the coming months and years to cover every language served by Google. Presently, 10% of searches done in English will be driven by BERT; 10% may not sound like much, but considering there are about 70,000 searches every second, and most of those are in English, that is an absolute boatload of searches impacted by BERT. It also will change the results for the featured snippets you’re increasingly seeing at the top of SERPs, so there’s even more going on here.

How does BERT effect Search Engine Optimisation

BERT went live at the end of October, and there have been some changes happening to rankings since; this is always to be expected, as with any change that Google makes. The question is, can you optimise for BERT? And honestly? Not really. The best advice is to write great content for your users. Keep doing the normal SEO tasks that you’ve been working away on (just like Tinder, you can never ‘complete’ SEO), and make sure you do have keywords in your copy, but this is a big step in helping the machines understand us. Unless you’re terrified of the mechanical uprising, this can only be a good thing. The more that Google understands us, the less you have to change your copy for them, and the more you can just write for the user. And trust me, there’s a lot more to come in the world of search thanks to AI.

With BERT helping us be understood, and GDPR waging war on the Cookie Monster, we’re looking forward to the Elmo update, where we get a big boost from Google because Elmo love us.

If you want to know more about BERT, there are some fantastic articles to look at! Dawn Anderson has created valuable material where you can delve deeper into Google’s new update.

What are your thoughts on the BERT update? Comment below and tell us what you think!