As always, when Google releases a new update to its search algorithm, it’s an exciting (and potentially scary) time for SEO. Google’s latest update, BERT, represents the biggest alteration to its search algorithm in the last five years.
So, what does BERT do?
Google says the BERT update means its search algorithm will have an easier time comprehending conversational nuances in a user’s query.
The best example of this is statements where prepositional words such as ‘to’ and ‘for’ inform the intent of the query.
BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, which is a language processing technique based on neural networking principles.
Google estimates the update will impact about 10% of United States-based queries and has revealed BERT can already be seen in action on featured snippets around the world.
How does Google BERT affect on-page SEO?
SEO practitioners can breathe a collective sigh of relief, because the Google BERT update is not designed to penalise websites, rather, only improve the way the search engine understands and interprets search queries.
However, because the search algorithm is better at understanding nuances in language, it means websites with higher-quality written content are going to be more discoverable.
Websites that have a lot of detailed ‘how-to’ guides and other in-depth content designed to benefit users are going to get the most from Google BERT. This means businesses who aren’t implementing a thorough content strategy are likely to fall behind the curve.
Basically, the BERT update follows Google’s long-running trend of trying to improve the ability of its search algorithm to accurately serve conversational search queries.
The ultimate result of this trend is users being able to perform detailed search queries with the Google voice assistant as if they were speaking to a real person.
Previous algorithm updates
While BERT may be the first major change to Google search in five years, it’s not the biggest shakeup in their history.
The prior Google PANDA and Google PENGUIN updates were both significant and caused a large number of websites to become penalised due to the use of SEO strategies that were considered ‘spammy’ or unfriendly to users.
Google PANDA was developed in response to user complaints about ‘content farms’.
Basically, Google’s algorithm was rewarding quantity over quality, meaning there was a business incentive for websites to pump out lots of cheaply acquired content for the purposes of serving ads next to or even within them.
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The PANDA update most noticeably affected link building or ‘article marketing’ strategies where low-quality content was published to content farms with a link to a business’ website attached to a keyword repeated throughout the article.
It meant that there was a significant push towards more ethical content marketing strategies, such as guest posting.
Google PENGUIN is commonly seen as a follow up to the work started by PANDA, targeting spammy link-building practices and ‘black-hat’ SEO techniques.
This update was focused primarily on the way the algorithm evaluates the authority of links as well as the sincerity of their implementation in website content. Spammy or manipulative links now carried less weight.
However, this meant that if another website posted a link to yours in a spammy or manipulative way, it would negatively affect your search rankings.
This meant that webmasters and SEO-focused businesses needed to make use of the disavow tool to inform Google what inbound links they approve of and which they don’t.