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How Google’s BERT update will affect small businesses

8 min read | Last updated on

If you’ve heard about Google’s BERT update — Google’s biggest search engine algorithm update in the last five years — you’re probably wondering how it will affect you as a small business. The good news is, if you’re following SEO and content marketing best practice, you shouldn’t be negatively affected. And there are some things you can do to take advantage of the update. Read on to learn what you need to know — or listen to the audio version of this blog post.

What is 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 so Google’s search algorithm can 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.

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

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.

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 will be affected by the BERT update?

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Currently, search results for one in 10 searches performed in English in the US are being generated with the help of BERT. For those of us with target markets in other countries and/or who use other languages, the update is on its way.

But for featured snippets, BERT is already in use in all 24 countries where snippets are available.

If you haven’t published much digital content on the web, you might not see any difference in your SERPs rankings or website traffic. If you publish a lot more digital content down the track, you will most likely be impacted by BERT.

If you’ve got lots of content, you might have seen some differences in your rankings and traffic. If you’ve got good content, any changes should have been positive. If your content isn’t up to scratch, any changes would likely have been negative.

As the BERT software continues to learn, search results will become increasingly relevant. And that means the effects on your business will multiply.

How should small businesses react to BERT?

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If you (or someone you’ve hired to create content) have (has) been using dodgy ‘black hat’ SEO techniques to try to game the system to get good search rankings, you need to fix this as soon as possible. This is because the BERT algorithm will get better and better at understanding natural language searches, and at the same time, it’ll also get better at understanding content and how good it is at answering a search query. So if your content is stuffed full of keywords but doesn’t do a good job of answering search queries, it will now be much less likely that Google will display it in search results.

Google has been making improvements in this area for a long time so this should not be a surprise.

If you’re doing all the right things, you don’t need to worry. But you can 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 more content and make it more specific. Figure out what questions your target audience is asking and create content that exactly answers those questions.

You don’t need to write 2000-word blog posts to rank well if you do that. Just write exactly the number of words you need to to answer the question.

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

Check out these articles to help you create good quality content for various parts of your sales funnel:

Also, 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 title, meta description, URL slug, and logical headings. Remember, 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’ve found you have lost website traffic after the BERT update, it’s probably because your content isn’t specific enough — or Google was ranking you for irrelevant terms. If you get in quick, you might be able to get back lost traffic by updating specific pieces of content.

To figure out where you have a good opportunity to recover from BERT, start by determining which content and search terms were affected by looking at your Google Search Console data. First, take a look at your ‘search results’. Then click on the date button > compare and select the date of your traffic drop and a previous date from before the drop. Select ‘Queries’ and sort the results by difference with the biggest difference at the top. Go through the data and find longer search terms that took a big hit (it’s easier to target long-tail keywords first). Then see which pieces of content are showing up for those search terms. Once you’ve identified one or more pieces of content, you can brainstorm ways to improve each piece so it better answers the search queries you identified.

If all this seems like a lot of work and you’ve got other things you need to be doing, you can outsource this work without having to commit to paying a content creator long-term.

Have your say

Were you worried about the Google BERT update? Have you been affected by BERT? Are you making friends with BERT and taking advantage of the update? Let us know in the comments below.

And if you’ve got questions I didn’t answer in this post, please ask and I’ll see if I can get you an answer.


Dr Kelly Wade

Hi! I’m a full-funnel marketing specialist and my mission is to build a better tomorrow by helping organisations that solve crucial problems, efficiently generate sustainable growth with strategic marketing assets that attract, nurture, convert and retain the target market.

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