After rumblings and rumors of an algorithm earlier in the week, Google has confirmed in a blog post that it’s rolling out a significant update. In fact, they’re calling this update "the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search."

This update started going live at the start of the week and will be completely rolled out by the end of the week. According to its blog post, it’s completely live for English-language queries.

What is BERT?

Google has dubbed this huge update as "BERT". BERT stands for “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers”. It’s a technology that helps to train natural language processing systems in order to build a state of the art question answering system.

Essentially it allows Google to read an entire sentence while also looking at the individual words within that sentence and understand how those words relate to all the other words in the sentence. Previously Google was reading sentences on a word-by-word basis.

By looking at what comes before and after a word in a sentence, BERT can consider a word’s full context when determining the intent behind a user’s search.

How does BERT impact Google search?

BERT helps Google better understand nuance and context in a user’s search query. So in a way, it’s a lot like the RankBrain AI Google uses to understand queries. However, BERT isn’t replacing RankBrain or any other algorithm Google already uses. It works alongside them.

In their blog post, Google gives a few examples of how BERT better understands the nuance of language.

The first is the query "2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa". Before BERT, Google wasn’t understanding how “brazil”, “traveler” and “usa” related to each other. In the query, the position of the word “to” is very important, but Google didn’t recognize it so they showed results about US citizens traveling to Brazil.

Now, with BERT, they see that the query is actually about a Brazilian who wants to visit the US and is able to show results based on that.

Here’s a before and after shot of those results:

Screenshot showing before and after effects of BERT update for query 2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa

As another example, look at the query "parking on a hill with no curb". Before BERT, Google didn’t understand how important the word “no” is to the query, so they returned results that were relevant to parking on a hill and talked about the curb. But that’s actually the exact opposite of what the user would want for that query.

BERT understands how important the word "no" is in relation to the word “curb” and returns more helpful information for the user.

Screenshot showing before and after effects of BERT update for query parking on a hill with no curb

How Does BERT Impact SEO?

This is a hard question to answer. On one hand, as you can see from Google’s examples above, BERT can radically change what pages it shows for a query and how it ranks them. And, as we mentioned earlier, Google itself has said this is a massive change. They anticipate it will impact 10% of all queries and when you process billions of queries every day that’s a lot of queries.

And not only will it impact Google’s organic search results it is also changing what content gets shown in featured snippets.

So we know BERT will have an impact on SEO, but since it’s all about how Google reads and interprets languages, it’s extremely difficult to optimize for. In fact, Google's Danny Sullivan confirmed via Twitter that website owners can't optimize sites or content for BERT:

As a website owner or marketer, all you can do is double down on understanding your target audience:

  • How are they searching for information on Google? How do they phrase their questions and queries?

  • Create content that provides that information and answers their questions.

  • Write that content in a way that is clear and understandable to your human readers using natural language.

Has Your Site Been Affected by BERT?

Depending on who you ask, the impact of BERT has been huge — causing huge changes to search results, rankings and traffic — or minimal with little observable effects.

Have you seen any changes to rankings or traffic for your site in the last week since BERT started its rollout?