Google very recently announced the rollout of a significant update to how it handles search queries, called BERT, but how will this affect local search and local businesses? Do you suddenly need to switch up your local search strategy?
While it’s still very early days, here’s a primer for BERT and some guidance on what this new era of Google search means for local SEO and local businesses.
What is Google BERT?
Google BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, if that helps explain it to anyone out there!) is a form of AI that allows Google to better understand the relationships between elements of language in a search term.
Put simply, Google can now return more accurate, better results for more complex and more conversational long-tail search terms, like “can you get medicine for someone pharmacy”. Google’s own announcement blog contains some good examples that showcase how search results will change for these types of terms.
According to Google, it represents “the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search,” and they say it will affect 1 in 10 English-language searches as well as searches returning Featured Snippets for any language that supports snippets.
To be even more specific, the blog post explains that BERT is used for general ranking now in US English. We don’t have a timeline for later releases. For featured snippets, it’s live for any language that has these (there are nearly 25 of these supported).
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) October 28, 2019
Why has Google BERT been released?
From where I’m sitting, this update seems aimed at least somewhat at voice search, the home of conversational, natural search queries. After all, you don’t (or are at least much less likely to) say “florists athens” to your Google Home or Voice Assistant, and likewise very few people type “Can you give me a list of ten florists with begonias in athens” into traditional Google search.
However, in the examples Google provides, we’re at times looking at quite broken language (“2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa”) which suggests another aim of BERT is to better predict and make contextual assumptions about the meaning behind complex search terms.
Concepts and context are at the heart of BERT, and it’s an encouraging sign that Google has taken steps to better understand the average, perhaps less web-savvy searcher. For the SEO world, though, it’s a sign that Google is developing the skills and confidence to ultimately return a single, perfect result in response to a complex, niche search term. Is ‘zero search results’ coming back?
What does Google BERT mean for local businesses?
If the lack of buzz in the local SEO community is anything to go by, there’s unlikely to be any impact specific to local businesses right away, but it’s definitely worth noting that when Google says BERT impacts “1 in 10 searches”, there’s no mention of whether this is inclusive or exclusive of local pack results.
My understanding is that the 10 hypothetical searches mentioned do include searches that could return local pack results, as otherwise they would have explicitly said so.
Will Google BERT affect tracked local rankings?
If you’re using a local rank tracking tool like BrightLocal you may start to see a change in your organic and local rankings, but only once the update has fully rolled out and once those sites which have benefited from the update have seen a knock-on impact on their overall rankings for short-tail keywords.
Why? Because when SEOs input keywords into rank trackers, they tend to use short-tail search terms like “pharmacy dallas”, which BERT is not aimed at changing the results for in any way. SEOs don’t tend to use tools to track terms like the aforementioned “can you get medicine for someone pharmacy” so I would only expect to see tracked rankings change when the positive impacts from being optimized for natural language have been felt.
To put it another way, if your website is full of information that will now see the light of day more often due to the BERT update, you’ll see more organic impressions, clickthroughs and backlinks to your content. This will naturally have a positive impact on your overall search profile and ultimately your tracked, local rankings.
On the other side of the coin, if your competitors are seeing more organic traffic to their content, but you’re not, there’s a chance you’ll ultimately see a drop in your tracked local rankings, though I’d imagine it would be very slight. However, in the tightly-competitive local pack, with only three unpaid spaces up for grabs, even a small change can make a big difference.
As Barry Schwartz recommends in his piece on BERT for Search Engine Land,
Check to see your search traffic changes sometime next week and see how much your site was impacted by this change. If it was, drill deeper into which landing pages were impacted and for which queries. You may notice that those pages didn’t convert and the search traffic Google sent those pages didn’t end up actually being useful.
Can you optimize Google My Business or your local business website for BERT?
In short, no. You can’t optimize GMB or your website for the kinds of unpredictable and completely unique phrases that BERT is hoping to return better search results for.
However, you can continue doing what any good SEO will have been doing anyway: creating great content for human readers, using natural language.
I know it sounds like a classic Google cop-out (“just keep creating great content and everything will be cool, dude”) but this is really all you can hope to do.
There’s nothing to optimize for with BERT, nor anything for anyone to be rethinking. The fundamentals of us seeking to reward great content remain unchanged.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) October 28, 2019
The losers in this update will be the old-school keyword-stuffers writing content for search engines and the winners will be those providing masses of relevant, useful, well-written content written to be understood and enjoyed by human beings.
A poll we ran in 2018 showed that 69% of consumers think that a blog is “important” or “essential” for local businesses. This update provides further argument for local businesses to invest in a blog as a home for the sort of content that can be returned for niche searches.
What do you think?
Are you seeing a change in your organic keywords? Do you think this is a positive move from Google? Will local search be more affected as time goes on? As I said above, it’s really early days for this update so it would be great to read your opinions and experiences.