BERT: Understanding Natural Language in Google Search Queries

Given people’s natural curiosity Google sees billions of searches every day, 15% of which Google has never seen before. Think about how many times you do a Google search when you’re not quite sure how to word it to get Google to understand what to search for. Google has finally built a way to return results for queries that weren’t previously anticipated: BERT or Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. Sounds complicated, but it’s really pretty simple.

We’re six months into Google’s biggest search change in the last 5 years; and by now, most people in the digital marketing world are familiar with BERT. If you don’t fully understand how your content marketing can benefit from this change, let me explain further.

What is Bert?

BERT, which was released at the end of October, 2019 is said to have impacted about 10% of all searches. It is a neural network-based technique for natural language processing pre-training. In plain English, It helps Google to better understand the nuance and context of words in searches.

Keep in mind that there are ambiguities in certain words that are understood by humans but not by machines.

The prepositions “to” and “for” can be used for direction or destination, time between two points, and to limit the endpoint of something.

  • The library is a good place for study.
  • The library is a good place to study.

The word “like” can be used as a preposition, a conjunction, a noun, a very, an adjective, or an adverb. For example:

  • I like the way your hair looks. (verb)
  • Make my hair look like this picture. (preposition)

I don’t want to get too involved in grammatical usage, but remember in elementary school when your teachers taught you to use context clues? One of the clues was to look at the words before and after the word you’re trying to read. Think of BERT as giving Google context clues so that it understands what you want it to search for. The bidirectional (before and after) part of BERT allows Google to look at the content of the sentence before and after an ambiguous word to gain a better understanding of what the searcher is looking for. This enables Google to display results based on actual context by reading between the lines as humans do – just like looking for context clues when you learned to read.

How Can My Content Benefit by Using Bert?

Have you noticed any changes in your search rankings lately? If so, have you done anything to adjust your content marketing?

The good news is that if you’ve been practicing SEO the right way, you won’t need to make many changes. If you feel your content could use some adjustments to rank better with the BERT update, here are some tips:

Write in Natural Language – BERT processes results based on how the user searches. 

  • Write how you speak – conversationally.
  • Write meaningful content, using natural language
  • Content should be factual and valuable
  • Grammar doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be close. For context to be understood, grammar should be correct.

Write Relevant, Valuable Content – Think quality over quantity.

  • It’s a common misconception that long-form content drives more traffic.
  • No matter how long your content, it won’t rank if it’s not relevant – quality over quantity.
  • If you do publish a one thousand word blog post answering a particular question or addressing a particular topic, it will rank based on relevance to search context.
  • Avoid vague, ambiguous information. You have to win your share of readers by being relevant.

Focus On User Intent – The BERT update is strongly focused on the search intent of the user.

  • If a user searches “how to bake chocolate chip cookies,” he doesn’t want to know where to buy the best chocolate chip cookies.
  • This search result should display a recipe for chocolate chips cookies whether the user included the word “recipe” or not.
  • The algorithm will decode what the user wants even if he has not used exactly the right word.
  • While you might notice a dip in overall traffic, you likely see an increase in relevant traffic. This means that your conversion percentage should be higher because the intent of the user is taken into account.

Use Simple, Conversational Keywords – BERT has finally cleared up the ridiculous myth regarding the overuse of keywords.

  • Keyword stuffing is a useless SEO tactic practiced by amateur content writers.
  • Use keywords in your content the same way people use them in conversation.
  • Try content writing in the form of using keywords in questions and/or answers to specific search queries.

Words Matter Now More Than Ever – Use correct language to enhance your search ranking

  • Based on usage, words like conjunctions and prepositions have different meanings that can be understood by humans and not machines.
  • BERT now gives importance to words that have prior to this time been ignored, so that Google has the right “clues” to search for the right answers.
  • Using the correct language will enhance your search rankings now more than ever.

It’s very likely that you’ve already been benefiting from BERT if you are aware of the importance of using natural language in your SEO. If you haven’t, now is the time to start producing meaningful, relevant content that has value for your users.

Language understanding is an ongoing challenge that keeps Google motivated to get it right. Who knows what the future holds for Google’s next search technique. It remains to be Googled.