We first introduced bidirectional encoder representations from transformers – a.k.a. BERT, Google’s biggest update in years – at the end of October. Designed to help Google’s algorithm better understand the intent behind search queries, BERT processes words in relation to all the other words in the query, not one-by-one in order. This neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) helps the algorithm understand the context and nuances involved in users’ searches. Ultimately, the goal is to deliver more relevant results to searchers while also encouraging searchers to use natural language (as opposed to keyword-heavy queries).
As soon as BERT hit the scene, numerous SEOs wrote articles detailing their reactions to the update and their recommendations for webmasters. While many of these articles provided helpful, legitimate advice, others spread a wealth of misinformation. So today, we’re exploring several persistent myths about BERT.
Myths About BERT
Myth: You need to optimize your website for BERT.
This is one of the most pervasive myths about BERT. To clear things up, let’s go straight to the source: Google’s public Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan, tweeted this in response to a few related questions: “There’s nothing to optimize for with BERT, not anything for anyone to be rethinking. The fundamentals of us seeking to reward great content remain unchanged.”
There you have it! There’s no need to overhaul your content – just continue writing great content, as always.
Myth: BERT requires you to optimize your site for long-tail queries.
BERT helps Google better understand search queries, including those written in natural language and those with prepositions and “stop words” that add to the meaning of the query. Some people have misinterpreted this fact and assumed that it’s now important to optimize websites for long-tail queries. Remember, BERT was designed to understand users’ intent and connect that to the information that already exists on your website. You don’t need to change anything; you just have to trust that BERT is doing his job.
Myth: BERT increases the importance of stop words.
Stop words are words that are typically filtered out by natural language processing tools. While there isn’t a universal list of stop words, they tend to be the most common words in a language. In English, some common stop words include a, an, and, as, at, but, by, for, if, it, of, on, or, so, the, this, to, which, with, and you. As we just mentioned, BERT is better able to understand queries written in natural language that use stop words. Some articles have interpreted this to mean that stop words are more valuable now and should be included in more content. Again, remember that BERT is simply helping Google understand users’ queries, which often include stop words. Updating your content to add more stop words won’t help your SEO.
Myth: BERT is a small update.
This one is debatable. According to Google, BERT helps the search engine better understand approximately 1 in 10 English searches in the United States. That’s not insignificant! The perception that BERT is a minor update is likely a reflection of the fact that it’s not shaking up many keywords. Instead, it’s assisting with keywords that may have been misinterpreted previously. So depending on how you look at it, you might consider BERT to be relatively large (because it affects about 10 percent of queries) or quite small (because it hasn’t reshuffled many valuable two- to three-word phrases).
Google is the first to admit that BERT isn’t perfect. Language is incredibly complex, and teaching it to a search engine algorithm is no small feat. While you can’t optimize for BERT, you can work hard to make your website as engaging as possible for your desired audience. Focus on publishing high-quality content, and write for people (not search engines). As the Beatles sang, “All you have to do is act naturally.”
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