In January, Google finished rolling out its latest batch of search algorithm upgrades. Among them was its Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers update, better known as BERT, which makes Google search more effective at understanding the context of queries. It’s the most significant Google algorithm update since 2015’s RankBrain, and it brings a mixed bag of implications for brands.
On one hand, because BERT makes it easier for users to find relevant, high-quality content, brands producing this caliber of work may see upticks in their website traffic. On the other hand, traffic fluctuations can swing the other way, harming the performance of existing content–chiefly, the pieces Google deems low quality. To dodge ROI dilemmas, you’ll need an organic search strategy tailored to BERT.
But what’s the best way to update your strategy? And in a BERT world, where does content and website optimization come into play? This road map takes you through the twists and turns you can expect from the latest Google algorithm update, guiding you on the pivots you’ll need to make to successfully ride them out.
Pull Insights from Your Traffic Trends
Before making changes to your strategy, you’ll need to examine how BERT is affecting your traffic. Reviewing your overall website traffic can help you pinpoint large-scale shifts, but you’ll also want to investigate movement on individual pages. This helps you identify the areas significantly affected by BERT–i.e., the ones that’ll require future action from you. This is also the best way to assess which SEO tactics are and aren’t effective post-BERT, including what types of keywords are experiencing less traffic.
It’s possible that much of your content, and possibly a majority of your pages, won’t experience significant changes in traffic. However, you could see dramatic shifts, due to the algorithm’s greater emphasis on context and natural language when processing queries. By identifying page-level and overall shifts, you’ll have the insights you need to guide your website optimization efforts. This data will also help you create net new content that BERT’s more likely to promote.
Don’t review any traffic data from before January 13, though, as that’s when Google began rolling out this core update. BERT only has bearing on performance data from that date on.
Consider Long-Tail Keywords and Customer Questions
Improving your targeting of long-tail keywords will help you satisfy BERT and potentially boost your voice search traffic, as digital assistants favor content that uses natural language patterns. Use keyword research tools and your own website insights to identify the keywords you should be incorporating and the questions your target audience is asking. Then, create content that provides answers.
Delivering helpful, relevant, and engaging content is the best way to build brand authority and reach the top of SERPs. Additionally, questions in and of themselves work excellently as long-tail keywords, which can be organically incorporated in titles, body copy, and metadata.
Consider this example shared by marketing guru Neil Patel: Before BERT, if a user typed, “2019 Brazil traveler to USA need a visa,” Google would display results discussing how Americans can travel to Brazil without a visa. However, this misses the question’s true intention. “It’s slight, but it is a big difference,” Patel explained in his blog. “The search wasn’t about U.S. people going to Brazil, it was about people from Brazil traveling to the U.S.”
After BERT, the same question is answered with a resource from the United States Embassy and Consulate, which discusses what Brazilian travelers will require to enter the U.S. Because BERT understands the nuances of natural language, it can better interpret the intent of questions to deliver a completely different–and much more relevant–top search result.
Placing a greater emphasis on answering audience questions is a start, but you’ll also want to continue the dialogue. Keep an eye out for follow-up questions, shared on social or through comments on your website, to use as inspiration for new material. This is the type of social listening that users embrace: Brands responding to audience needs with relevant content. It’s also the path to brand loyalty, engagement, and BERT’s metaphorical heart.
Focus on Value When Creating Content
The only way to optimize your website and existing content for BERT is to focus on value, value, value. If what you’re putting out doesn’t deliver value to users, it won’t make it to the top of search–plain and simple.
Your content must anticipate users’ needs, answer their questions, and provide them with solutions in an organic way. Part of this comes with identifying trends and shaping your SEO strategy accordingly. But keep in mind, BERT won’t be easily fooled by old-school keyword magic. The Google algorithm rates the value of content by looking at its contextual information, not how many times it uses a keyword. Then, it delivers the most relevant content to users. This is a good thing, though.
It simplifies the goals of content marketing. If your content speaks directly to your audience’s interests and needs, BERT will help connect it with relevant users. This lets your brand focus on creating inspiring content, rather than being at the beck and call of fickle keyword trends. This also presents an opportunity to refresh your freelance writer pool or float the option of enhanced assets to stakeholders. Think about what your audience needs, and what they respond well to. Then, adjust your strategy accordingly.
That’s not to say that keywords aren’t important. While Google’s changes address the shortcuts brands use to accelerate to the top of SERPs–i.e., keyword stuffing–your existing keyword strategy is still valuable in 2020. However, it needs to be balanced, by considering both BERT’s search preferences and those of your target audience. If your strategy achieves that, you’ll find the road to pleasing BERT isn’t that bumpy after all.
Looking for more strategies to stay on top of Google’s latest moves? Download our State of SEO 2020 report, which rounds up seven big-picture trends that content marketers need to take action on in 2020.