How Google’s BERT Update Affects Small Businesses

Updated 23 Feb, 2023 | SEO

If you’ve heard about Google’s BERT update — the massive search algorithm Google rolled out in 2019 (their biggest since RankBrain) — you’re probably wondering how it could affect you as a small business. The good news is, all you have to do to avoid being negatively affected by BERT is to adhere to SEO and content marketing best practices, which I can lay out for you in simple terms. There are, however, some strategic things you can do beyond that to take advantage of the update. So don’t stop here. This is a can’t-miss guide.

What was the Google BERT update?

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The technical aspects of the BERT update are complicated. Even the name is highly technical — BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. Doesn’t tell you much, does it? Well, here’s what you need to know about it.

The purpose of the update is to allow Google’s search algorithm to do a better job of understanding longer, more natural search queries. In particular, the update helps Google understand the context of a person’s search — what kind of information they’re trying to find when they conduct a search.

Thanks to BERT, when you search google using the language you would use if you were talking, you’re much more likely to see the kind of information you were looking for.

Google has put together some great examples of how this update impacts the search results people will see.

A before and after screenshot of a search listing for the query ‘2019 Brazil traveler to USA need a visa’. Before BERT Google would have shown an article called US citizens can travel to Brazil without the red tape of a visa. After BERT  it shows an article with a description that says in general, tourists traveling to the United States require valid B-2 visas.

In this first example, the search query ‘2019 Brazil traveler to USA need a visa’ would previously have produced unhelpful results. The first result before the update was a page that talks about how US citizens can travel to Brazil without a visa. But the search query is actually about Brazilians travelling to the US, so that search result wouldn’t have been very helpful.

After the BERT update, the first search result is much more helpful. In fact, it provides the exact information the query requests.

Google has also used BERT to improve its featured snippets.

A before and after screenshot of a search listing for the query ‘parking on a hill with no curb’. Before BERT Google would have shown a snippet that says ‘parking on a hill. Uphill: when headed uphil at a curb, turn the front wheels away from the curve and let your vehicle roll backwards slowly until the rear part of the front wheel rests against the curb…’. After BERT, the snippet reads ‘For either uphill or downhill parking, if there is no curb, turn the wheels toward the side of the road so the car will roll away from the center of the road if the brakes fail…’.

In this example, Google’s previous algorithm would have produced a featured snippet that provides almost exactly the opposite of the information requested. When someone searched for information on how to park on a hill that doesn’t have a curb, the previous algorithm showed a featured snippet that described how to park on a hill with a curb. After the BERT update, the featured snippet provides the right instructions.

Who’s affected by the BERT update?

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Initially, Google estimated the search results for 1 in 10 searches performed in English in the US were being generated with the help of BERT. And it wasn’t long before the update rolled out to other languages.

Today, fewer and fewer people use search engines by entering search fragments and Boolean operators (like we were taught to do in the 90s and early 00s). As a result, more and more people are writing and speaking naturally when they use Google and so an increasing percentage of searches benefit from the advances BERT have brought us.

I couldn’t find any official data about how many searches use BERT now, but I think it’s safe to say the frequency is greater than 1 in 10 by now. Even if it’s not, that’s still 10% of searches that’re affected. So, you can be sure at least some of the searches being performed by your target audience are being aided by BERT.

How should small businesses react to BERT?

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The longer BERT is in use, the better it gets at understanding:

  1. The context of searches
  2. How well content answers search queries

As a result, content that’s been ‘optimised’ with black hat SEO techniques (e.g. content that’s stuffed full of keywords instead of being structured to provide comprehensive answers to a series of closely related questions) will perform ever more poorly in Google search.

As Google has been making improvements to fight black hat SEO techniques for a long time, so if you’ve hired content creators who aren’t optimising your content for humans first and foremost, it’s time to ditch them. And if you’ve been unwittingly optimising your content incorrectly, it’s time to learn SEO best practices!

Now, if you’re doing all the right things, you don’t need to worry about being negatively affected by BERT. But you may also be able to do extra things to take advantage of the change.

If you want to take advantage of the BERT update to outrank your competitors, the best thing you can do is create content that’s more specific. Figure out what questions your target audience is asking and create content that exactly answers those questions.

Now, contrary to some of the spurious advice you may see bandied about, you don’t need to write 2000-word blog posts to rank well if you’re answering targeted questions. Just write exactly the number of words you need to to answer each question comprehensively.

Similarly, you don’t need to create hour-long videos and podcasts if a 2-minute explanation is all your audience needs.

It’s also worth pointing out that this is another Google update that further reduces the importance of keyword density. So, if you haven’t already, stop worrying about keyword density. Just make sure your keywords are in the important places, like your SEO titlemeta descriptionURL slug, and logical headings.

Your aim with any keyword is to ensure you use it wherever it will help your target audience understand the information you’re conveying — and never any more frequently than that. This usually equates to a density of about 0.5-2.5%, but don’t modify your content to achieve that density — simply use that density range as a sanity check to make sure you’re not completely off the mark. (If your density is 20% you know you’re doing something wrong and if it’s 0, you’ve probably got the wrong keyword.)

If you found you lost website traffic after the BERT update, it was probably because your content wasn’t specific enough — or Google was ranking you for irrelevant terms. If you get really specific with your content, you shouldn’t have that problem again.

Got questions about SEO best practices or BERT?

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Pop a question in the comments or get in touch and the K. M. Wade SEO expert (me, Kelly), will get back to you with advice and support.