If you’ve ever spent any time working on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) for your website, then you’ll already be familiar with search engine algorithms.  They help search engines to provide lists of appropriate websites in response to search queries.

It’s the aim of SEO experts to establish the most effective keywords that will encourage web surfers to visit a specific site.  The search engine web crawlers match up search queries with keywords, presenting the searcher with a list of recommended sites, ranked in order according to specific algorithms.

Improving the search engine results

In an attempt to improve and refine the services it provides, Google is constantly developing new algorithms, all designed to track the optimum websites that will answer the searcher’s query.  And until now, this has met with mixed results, thanks to the limitations of machine learning when assessing human language.

For example, as one web searcher reports, Google has so far been unable to make sense of certain phrases, since it has tended to look at words in the search query in isolation.  So an American typing ‘How to catch a cow fishing?’ was presented with pages of search results relating to cattle as livestock.  But what the searcher was actually after, was information on catching a saltwater striped bass, a game fish that anglers in New England commonly refer to as a ‘cow’.

This particular web searcher tried searching for his saltwater ‘cow’ at the beginning of October this year, and was offered information on cattle. But just three weeks later, following the release of the BERT algorithm, that same search returned pages of information on the saltwater striped bass.  This time, the search looked at the implication of the word ‘fishing’ in the search query, and returned answers based on combining the two words in context with each other.

And this, in a nutshell, is what the BERT algorithm has been created to do. Short for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, BERT aims to drill down into the web searcher’s specific intent, providing appropriate responses.  Effectively, it’s fine-tuning the search process, so it doesn’t mean that BERT renders previous algorithms obsolete.  Rather, it works in conjunction with all the other current algorithms, providing the most appropriate websites that can deliver the information, products or services that a web visitor is looking for.

BERT helps Google to understand context

It’s the Holy Grail for search engines to be able to provide web searchers with the optimum sites that fulfil their needs.  But the nature of language makes it difficult, as so many of our words have multiple meanings. Add to that the various prepositions that can subtly alter the meaning of a sentence, and it’s little wonder that machines struggle to understand what we are trying to say.

But the BERT algorithm isn’t concerned with changing the ways in which data is stored and indexed.  It’s actually focussed on understanding the context of a search query. And this means understanding the impact individual words have on the words that surround them.  Based on mathematical models known as Transformers, the technology looks at the positioning of words, as well as interpreting the likely meaning of any prepositions.  Search results are much more likely to offer genuine value to the searcher, which is why the BERT algorithm is being hailed as one of the most significant breakthroughs in search over the past five years.

BERT has been rolled out across US English language websites, but Google hasn’t yet revealed when it will be more widely released.  However, it’s said to already be at work across featured snippets in most languages, so it’s already becoming increasingly commonplace.

Google claim that it will eventually impact approximately 10% of all searches, so it’s going to be huge. Long-tailed keywords are likely to be most affected, although voice search will almost certainly be targeted too.  And with voice search becoming increasingly widespread, the need for search engines to understand the complexity of language is more important than ever before.

How will BERT affect my website?

As is always the case when a new algorithm is released, many SEO ‘experts’ are now claiming that the BERT update will require modifications to existing SEO strategies.  But there’s really no need to worry.  BERT isn’t likely to affect your site’s overall rankings, at least not in the short term.  But if your SEO strategy relies very heavily on long-tailed keywords, we advise keeping an eye on your metrics, to make sure that your rankings haven’t been affected.

Here at Brookstone we make it our business to understand the impact that Google’s new algorithms will have upon your website’s search results.  If you’d like any help or advice, please don’t hesitate to contact us, and we’ll show you how we can help to get your site in front of serious, motivated potential customers.