Last week, Google rolled out their biggest update in 5 years and one of the biggest in search history, the BERT update.
Ok, Google. You’ve got our undivided attention. Let’s all sit in a semicircle with our legs crossed and our ears open like good little SEO experts and let Google’s Danny Sullivan tell us what to do to prepare for BERT.
Google’s BERT Update: Key Points
Last year Google announced that they added an open-sourced neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) pre-training called Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers… BERT for short.
How does that impact searchers and SEO consultants? According to Google:
“Well, by applying BERT models to both ranking and featured snippets in Search, we’re able to do a much better job helping you find useful information. In fact, when it comes to ranking results, BERT will help Search better understand one in 10 searches in the U.S. in English, and we’ll bring this to more languages and locales over time.”
Simply put, BERT is AI that will help the Google Search algo better understand the language we use so it can give you smarter search results.
SearchEngineLand recently ran a great example of Google’s improved understanding of language, with a before and after of a search for “Can you get medicine for someone pharmacy.”
As you can see in the example on the left, pre-BERT Google didn’t quite get the subtle intricacy of “for someone,” meaning can I go to the pharmacy on behalf of someone else. After BERT, you can see the algo has done a better job of locking into the intent of the question and gives a better answer.
What The BERT Update Really Means
But, how can something so big mean no changes?
To be clear, this means no changes for people who have already embraced writing SEO blogs with a focus on the human reader. However, if you’re writing for search engine robots instead of human beings, this represents a massive change for you.
If you’ve been a content factory (or hired one) that is pumping out high-volume/ low-quality blogs regularly with heavily-optimized keywords and links, you should have already seen a drop in your metrics.
That being said, you probably have been seeing a drop for some time now, as most Google updates for the last few years have been aimed at rewarding quality.
The BERT update is just another step forward (albeit the biggest so far) in Google’s ranking engine attempt to think like a human brain and understand all of the intricacies of language to provide better search results.
As I always say, the algorithm has never made more sense than it does right now. Over the last decade, it has figured out all of the tricks and tactics that people have used to try to fool it. It has adapted and there is no fooling it anymore.
If you want to rank, you have to do the work.
How to Write for Human Beings (But also Search Engines)
A lot of SEO consulting agencies have trouble wrapping their heads around this concept.
Many of them have been writing for search engines for years, which is easier to understand, quantify, and fit on a spreadsheet. You can make content writing run like factory work and create bulk content.
“Write 500 words on ____ and use keyword ____ in no less than 2.5% of the total keyword density.”
But, what is all this business about writing for a fickle human audience? How do we do that? That’s subjective and doesn’t fit on a spreadsheet!
It’s true. Writing for a human audience is harder and will require more work. But, is it vague and completely subjective? No.
Here are 5 steps to take in writing for a human audience.
1. Stop Thinking in Bulk
The first thing that needs to change is the factory mentality of writing as many blogs as possible as quickly (and cheaply) as possible. You’re no longer a content Costco. You’re now a content boutique.
This mentality has to start with your writers. Your writers need to know the focus is on quality and not quality. They have to be thinking:
“I need to make this blog awesome”
“I need to write 6 articles today to meet my quota.”
Now, your writers feel compelled and empowered to:
- Do more thorough research
- Construct a better lead (more on this later)
- Tell a story, instead of hitting a word count
- Take the time to be funnier and more interesting
- Edit and proofread more thoroughly
- Expect more from themselves
- Quite simply, write something that doesn’t suck
Your writers need to feel like an artist and not factory workers. This fundamental shift in thinking is absolutely massive.
2. Use Better Images
The path to writing better blogs actually begins before the audience has even read a single word. You still need to earn their attention with striking and interesting image choices.
We know. Choosing a great image takes time and it can be expensive. Not everyone can afford a Shutterstock or Adobe Images account and those sites truly do hold a higher quality of images.
However, that’s not an excuse to use boring or uninteresting images. You can still do a lot for free. For example, you can use a site like Stencil to find a huge pile of free images. But more importantly, you can use Stencil to edit, crop, filter or add text to these images to make them more unique.
You can also make some more bold, interesting, or abstract choices for your images. Heck, you can even go a little weird. Weird grabs people’s attention as they’re scrolling through their social feed, and is more likely to earn a click than a safe and boring image.
3. Earn Their Attention With Better Titles and Leads
The title of a blog earns the click and the lead sentence earns their attention.
The importance of the title and the lead has been a fundamental part of good writing since the days of magazine ads. Today, it’s more important than ever.
An article with a strong lead and an average story is going to earn more clicks than a Pulitzer-level story with a flat lead.
You might even want to save the title and the lead for last when writing a blog. You may not know the most interesting part or statistic until you’re done writing the story.
The real goal here is to lock into your audience’s pain points to give them something that resonates.
Let’s say you’re writing a law blog and the topic is your first Christmas after a divorce. Great topic and a lot you can do with it.
The factory-method way to come up with a headline would be to choose something general and obvious like “5 Tips for Your First Christmas After Your Divorce.” Pretty good, but why not go after their emotions a bit more with something like “Your First Christmas After Divorce Doesn’t HAVE to Be Lonely.”
Now, keep that point going into your lead sentence. Don’t go with the factory default settings lead with something like “The holidays can be extra stressful if you are recently divorced.” Go with something bolder that focuses on the paint point like, “Does the prospect of seeing other people’s happy holiday pictures make you feel sick?”
Take the time to think about what would earn the click from the target audience. Focus on pain points instead of keywords.
4. Proofread. And then Proofread Again
You can no longer get away with simply running your blogs through spellcheck, Copyscape, and Grammarly and expect them to be “good enough.”
Humans are instantly put off by seeing typos or flagrant grammar errors. That means that human eyes need to be the last thing to review a blog before you hit “Publish.”
Proofreading programs are great and can help you catch those little mistakes that drive us all nuts. However, they can’t check for repetition, choppy writing, cadence, or repetition.
5. But, Don’t Stop Using Keywords
Just because we’re no longer fixated on keywords does not mean we’re going to forget about them completely. Because… that would be just plain nutty.
Even though we’re now speaking to a human audience, we still need to tell the search engines what this blog or webpage is all about when they crawl it. However, the challenge now becomes to use these keywords in a non-keyword-stuffy way to get them in there enough for search engines to recognize them, without annoying the reader.
The Bottom Line
We understand that doing nothing after a major Google algo update can make you feel uneasy. But again, if you were already writing for human beings first, and search engines second, you were already doing the right things.
If anything, this is motivation to double down on the quality of your writing and continue to commit to quality.
What happens if you have seen an increase in rankings post-BERT? Pat yourself on the back and continue to publish quality content and earn quality links. You’re clearly doing it better than your competition. Bravo!
What happens if you saw a drop post-BERT? Does that mean your writing needs to improve? Maybe, but don’t fire your writer just yet. I’m reminded of something that Google said after the so-called Medic update a few months ago.
“There’s nothing wrong with pages that may now perform less well. Instead, it’s that changes to our systems are benefiting pages that were previously under-rewarded”
What jumped out to me was the term “previously under-rewarded” pages. So, it’s possible that you outranked your competition because they were under-rewarded. It’s less about your good work no longer being good, it’s about your competitor’s good work now being fully recognized.
Of course, there are about 10 trillion other reasons that you could see a drop in traffic or rankings. If you have and you’re worried, I would love to talk to you about it. You can contact me any time.