Google sent shockwaves through the SEO seas by releasing a named-algorithm update, but BERT shouldn’t register as more than a ripple for your strategy.
BERT, or Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, is the latest iteration of Google’s natural language processing (NLP) capabilities.
Or, in short, Google’s reading comprehension graduated from middle school to high school.
Humans modify the meaning of words by the context of the sentence they’re used in. BERT allows Google to better understand searches by looking at the context of all the words together to serve more relevant content.
For example, “remove a nail” can have at least two vastly different meanings. By ensuring the latest machine-learning technology is looking for context, Google can make sure it’s not providing a hammer-related solution when you need a doctor’s phone number.
Plus, by improving Google’s understanding of how people talk and the interplay of their words conversationally, voice searches could ultimately be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this open-source technology.
Don’t view BERT as something ominous. This is good. BERT means that your targeted content strategy is more likely to succeed because this update will affect 10%(!) of all searches by the right content.
A Look Back at Google’s Evolving Algorithm Strategy
This update wasn’t the only indication of Google’s evolution in algorithm strategy focusing acutely on user intent. The Medic Update in August 2018 was a significant signal that Google’s algorithm has taken a major step toward realizing the type of quality analysis recommended in the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. Many other updates have automated analyses or served the user, but the Medic Update unleashed RankBrain on content.
RankBrain is the machine-learning element of Google’s core algorithm. An unfathomable number of keywords, pages, clicks and other user interactions (presumably) have been training RankBrain to become a larger player in the keyword rankings. It allowed Google to test searcher’s intent at scale and now plays a more central role in the SERPs.
These types of user-centric algorithm updates are stacking up to be a multi-year trend as Google redefines its algorithm strategy.
Even looking back a few years, Map Packs dropped from seven results to three in 2015 to better serve mobile customers, who overtook desktop searches that same year. Fast-forward to 2018, the Speed Update, which rolled out a month prior to Medic, demoted sites that took too long to serve the user a page. And so the user-experience-centric trend grew more prominent.
There’s even evidence that the second post-Medic update (March 2019) reversed some ranking drops, implying the machine recognized an overcorrection from August. Plus, SEMRush shows a core algorithm update in every month from March through June 2019.
The machine moves faster than man. The Medic update was Google improving the YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) space, arguably the most consequential part of a user’s internet use. Users want to trust Google to return the information they need when they type in or say certain keywords, particularly when it comes to their money and health.
This machine-learning approach to content has lifted sites with no links to the first page and demoted large sites spun up for purposes other than serving the user. And that has emboldened Google to continue rolling this strategy out across all sectors of the internet.
That’s precisely why ranking predictions from random consultants with all caps in their LinkedIn bios are as reliable as a politician’s promise. Google simply isn’t recognizing the same aspects in calculating the rankings, so sites that aim to please Google, and not the user, are getting bumped down the SERPs.
How Does Digital Current Build Algorithm-Proof SEO Strategies?
You need a holistic understanding of a business’s goals, operations and desired keywords to plan the best mode of attack. Here’s how Digital Current treats old algorithm wounds and creates a healthy long-term plan for a thriving digital presence:
1. Campaign Kickoffs Focused on the Client’s Business
We jumpstart every new campaign with a deep dive into our client’s business. These kickoffs are our chance to learn everything remotely relevant, from who your customers are to how your products differ from each other and the competition.
Our primary focus during this process is understanding your business’s goals. This allows us to determine the proper KPIs for measuring success and remove doubt about which tactics are working.
These insights serve us well in developing strategies, allowing for lateral thinking that ties ideas together to holistically drive search, digital and business growth.
2. Audit, Audit, Audit
With a foundation of business knowledge, we turn to the website’s digital health and presence through a series of SEO and other digital marketing audits. These include:
No website can thrive without a thorough examination of its technical structure. There are more than 180 issues we examine that can derail a site’s organic success no matter how great the content or thorough the keyword research.
We then build a plan of attack based on each obstacle’s potential impact versus the effort required. Whether it’s information architecture, a manual penalty or a spammy backlink profile, we set it straight so that our strategies are free to thrive.
Few areas of SEO have grown more in revenue over the past five years than the local organic channel. It’s imperative that all business with a local presence are following best practices both on- and off-site (Google My Business, citations, etc.) to compete.
There’s no point in identifying the right KPIs for a client if you’re not tracking them. A staple of our strategies includes an analytics audit that ensures crucial steps in the buyer’s journey are being monitored and reported.
Content Workshop, Personas and Audit
Keyword research can be rendered ineffective if the content doesn’t speak to the user’s needs in a voice that registers with the intended audience. Our content team works directly with your marketing department, sales staff, engineers and customers to find the right message to drive clicks, conversions, rankings and revenue.
Tie these audits together and what do you get? A clear understanding of what your users actually want and how you can best meet their needs.
3. Find Where Your Users Are Hanging Out
As we covered above, RankBrain uses machine learning to better understand what searchers are looking for when they use certain keywords.
If the algorithm determined that these users were looking for services, you’re going to find a Map Pack, local ads and a mix of directories (e.g., Yelp), lead-aggregation services (e.g., HomeAdvisor) and local landing pages. It’s also likely that those broad keywords that the big companies used to dominate have now been split into informational and local services, with little room for a generic homepage.
That’s why every keyword research project Digital Current conducts involves a SERP analysis. We dive past outdated tactics and raw numbers to find where our clients should live by looking at what type of results searchers are finding and your competitors are creating. Some of the questions we’re looking to answer include:
- Are ranking sites using deeper content to answer not just the original search but any follow-up questions?
- Are they using videos to better demonstrate how a product works or the right way to use a tool?
- Are image optimizations a place where we can get a leg up on the competition?
- Do we need to build more links to have a high enough authority to play in this space?
- What Schemas are the competitors using and what elements did they miss?
4. Target Those Users With the Right Optimized Content
Every digital marketer has inevitably been confronted with a tough question from a concerned client: “Why don’t I rank first for Keyword X anymore? This is a keyword that goes to the core competency of my business. How are we so far down (or off!) the first page?”
It can be uncomfortable, but there’s often a learning curve that hopefully your SERP analysis handled. And if we’ve done our job, the client will understand that those may not be the keywords they really need. Or perhaps it’s a matter of showing that ranking your homepage for a broad keyword with a massive search volume isn’t the way to compete. Rather, there may be more opportunity in a lesser-volume keyword for which you can gain greater visibility.
Keywords with a local intent have crept steadily upwards for years and make up just less than half of all searches. Those searches happen primarily on a mobile device dominated by a Map Pack. So not only do you need a mobile strategy, but your Google My Business (GMB) accounts need to be updated and supported by accurate citations, too.
Clients may not notice their page on the shrinking organic SERP, but they’ll notice the bump in revenue, no doubt.
Case in point, one enterprise client started appropriating a third of its budget for local SEO just over a year ago, driving an additional estimated $13.5 million in revenue off calls alone. These calls won’t show up in your organic traffic, so it’s imperative to track these actions using GMB Insights or other call-tracking platforms.
Plus, the reality is some local keywords are no longer winnable for companies. People love those top 10 lists of the best dry cleaners in their area. Those will always fluctuate near the top and often require a three-pronged approach to compete against, including the above-mentioned GMB, a local landing page and often a page with informative content to help users who may not become buyers at the same rate.
Finally, Google has made it clear it wants to keep more users on its own SERPs. Digital marketers and businesses must shift strategies to be where the user is converting, and that often means playing on Google’s field. Dinner reservations, travel plans and even food orders can be completed from end to end without ever leaving a Google domain. Clients need to make sure they’re up to par with Google’s latest offerings and requirements.
Where Do We Go From Here?
SEO isn’t dead — it’s evolving. And your strategy needs to evolve, too.
Short-term strategies focused on page optimizations with a few links will only get you so far. And they’ve been slowly fading away like meta keywords, cloaking and “The Walking Dead” (inexplicably in its ninth season).
Quick wins are still possible, but sustained success requires a strategy upgrade to survive algorithm updates.
We understand where Google has been moving toward (they’ve been telling us) and where the search engine is going. Our in-depth analysis goes past keywords, search metrics and word counts to determine how to satisfy a searcher’s intent. That’s how you win in Google’s post-Medic Update world.
We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and develop a strategy for you.