Let’s Talk About BERT: Google’s Latest Foray into Natural Language Processing

You may have heard that Google updated its algorithm again (big surprise). What is surprising about this announcement is just that: there’s an announcement. Usually, algorithm changes roll out quietly and then explode after the fact when sites’ search rankings drop or rise. This time, Google went into detail about their newest update, BERT, which will be used in 1 of every 10 search queries made in the U.S. BERT is the latest natural language processing program that helps search engines better understand users’ search queries.

So, what does this Google update mean for your digital marketing strategy? What will you have to change to optimize for BERT? And what the heck does BERT actually do? Luckily, the addition of BERT to Google’s search engine means you won’t have to change a thing — as long as you follow search optimization best practices and you’re creating authentic, naturally-written content, that is. We’ll dive into all that later. First, to understand BERT, we need to understand NLP.


What is Natural Language Processing?

Natural language processing is a kind of artificial intelligence that helps machines understand human language. Machines speak in code with loads of zeros and ones that translate into processes or actions. NLP helps to break down human language into a form that computers can understand, so they can process our language and take appropriate action in response. An example of NLP in our everyday lives is when you ask Alexa to play a song or tell Siri to add an appointment to your calendar. Your device hears the words, translates them into its own language (zeros and ones), derives the meaning from the phrase, and is able to form actionable items out of those words.

Despite how far NLP has come, it still has its restraints. You’ve probably asked Alexa a question she didn’t understand whether due to its length, context, or ambiguity. The trouble with NLP is the fact that human language is infinitely complex. Simple nuances and inflections can change the meaning of a phrase, and words with different meanings like “rose” which can be a color, a flower, or a name, can only be deciphered correctly with context clues. Computers have a hard time processing these kinds of subtleties. Yet, as NLP advances, computers should begin to develop natural language understanding, a step above NLP. This would be a significant breakthrough in artificial intelligence that would allow machines to comprehend the nuances of human language.

Alright, So What is Google’s BERT?

BERT, or Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, is a natural language processing model that uses (and advances) 11 NLP solutions already developed to significantly better understand language, including search queries in Google. Before BERT, many NLP solutions, including Google search, would process language more like a robot, breaking down each word one by one, instead of looking at the phrase as a whole. BERT turns this one-by-one approach on its head by looking at the words that come before and after each term in a search query to better understand the context. One area where we see noticeable improvement is the use of prepositions. Common words like “to” and “from” would normally be ignored in a search query, as if they were simply an article like “the.” Yet, these words are essential to meaning in many different contexts such as the example Google gives in their blog:

A searcher types in “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa” and gets the following results:

  • Before BERT: “U.S. citizens can travel to Brazil without the red tape of a visa…” – This answer talks about an American traveling to Brazil, which is an incorrect answer for the searcher’s query. The searcher is looking for information about traveling to the U.S.A. from Brazil.
  • After BERT: “Tourism & Visitor | U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Brazil” – BERT understands the query much better. It gives a correct answer that is enlightening and helpful for a Brazilian traveler looking to visit the States.

The word “to” and its relationship to the other words in the query are of paramount importance here. In the search result before BERT, “to” is ignored, and the search engine delivers an imprecise answer. With BERT, the whole phrase is taken into account, including that little word “to,” and a much more precise result is given — one that truly answers the searcher’s question.


What Does BERT Mean for Me & My Digital Marketing Strategy?

Nothing. Well, okay, it might mean something.

As long as you’re already creating high-quality, natural content around targeted short-tail keywords, you should be good to go. BERT is more impactful for long-tail keywords, something that the best marketing professionals don’t focus on. By building quality content around and about strong short-tail keywords, you automatically create the kind of content that will rank for related long-tail keywords.

Should your content be lacking in any way, whether the focus is too narrow or too wide, or the content is poorly written, you’ll feel the negative impact of BERT. If it’s been a while since you’ve read your website’s content, have a look at it and keep an eye out for these three key signs of high-quality, optimized content:

  • Does each page focus on one topic? The topic can be expanded upon, for sure, but a page about dental care for cats and dogs, for instance, should focus only on that topic. You can talk about bad breath and other signs of periodontal disease, as well as solutions for preventing and treating disease. Yet, it probably isn’t a good idea to go into detail about kidney failure and your treatment options for that. Write different pages for different topics.
  • Is your grammar flawless? Few things are more detrimental to a page’s credibility than bad grammar. Check and recheck your content for spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and other snafus that will deter site visitors as well as ding your ranking on Google.
  • Can the average searcher understand the topic? Using highfalutin language and industry jargon to communicate to your readers is sure to drive them away. Instead, use short, simple sentences, stick to one idea per sentence, and avoid jargon. This makes things not only clearer for your readers, but for Google as well.

Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of BERT and what this new Google update means for your website and digital marketing strategy. Above all, BERT is a keen reminder that we should be writing more for our fellow humans than for an algorithm. With natural, well-written content, Google’s BERT will surely take notice.