If you’ve noticed a big fluctuation in your local rankings, don’t worry, you’re not insane. It’s just Bedlam, that’s all.
Joy Hawkins was the first SEO expert to really report on these fluctuations and named it Google’s Bedlam update because it is “a scene of uproar and confusion.” Also, she added that she hates animal names, so The Lion update was out.
What’s really crazy is that Google actually confirmed the update and went into great detail into what it is, and what it’s all about.
The fluctuations caused by the Bedlam update were a result of Google recently implementing neural matching into local searches. The goal is for their algorithm to look beyond the words in a search query to truly understand the searcher’s intent, as Google attempts to:
- Provide better search results
- Reduce spam
Google tweeted that:
How the Bedlam Update Impacts Local SEO
Neural matching uses machine learning to try to understand the true intent of a search. This means understanding and processing any synonyms or colloquialisms that could be associated with that search.
According to Google, “For example, neural matching helps us understand that a search for ‘why does my TV look strange’ is related to the concept of ‘the soap opera effect.’ We can then return pages about the soap opera effect, even if the exact words aren’t used…”
As you can imagine, this has already caused chaos. Local businesses are seeing their rankings fluctuate. Some are dropping right off of the front page results that they worked so hard to earn. Others saw themselves climb the rankings and claim new SEO real estate as their own.
How Bedlam Will Help Fight Local Spam
Have you ever done a local search for a business and come across a listing that is clearly no more than just a bunch of keywords stuffed in? You probably didn’t click it.
Google knows that you hate these listings and Google hates them as much as you do.
Google is also looking to fight businesses doing other shady things like setting up multiple Google My Business (GMB) accounts, for the same business. These businesses may temporarily hack the system by setting up keyword-rich business names, all with different phone numbers.
This is their attempt to own the local market and push their competition out of the first page of the SERPs. Now, their only competition is themselves.
In the past, Google very much relied on us to report businesses that did this. They didn’t appear to have a clear algorithmic way of catching GMB keyword-stuffers and/or duplicate accounts.
The BEDLAM update would appear to be a big step forward in fighting this form of spam, which is good for everyone but the spammers. Businesses and marketers don’t have to deal with spammers being (albeit temporarily) rewarded, and searchers don’t have to put up with this nonsense in their search results.
Is This Part of the BERT Update?
After Google confirmed this update, the questions quickly followed. One of the most popular ones was “Is neural matching a part of the BERT update?”
For those of you who don’t work at an SEO firm in Toronto or don’t spend all day plugged into the Matrix, like we do, the BERT update was introduced by Google earlier this year.
BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. It’s an open-sourced neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) pre-training. Simply put, it’s AI that helps the Google Search algorithm better understand and adapt to the subtle intricacies of our language.
It’s easy to see why people would assume that Bedlam is part of BERT. They’re both B-words, they’re both machine learning/ AI-based. They arrived essentially back-to-back.
However, Google’s Danny Sullivan confirmed that they are not related in a Twitter post.
Google has been steadily introducing BERT into more of its searches since November. They recently announced that it is now impacting queries in 70 different languages across the world.
It was also recently revealed that Bing has been using BERT in their search algo since April of this year. However, nobody really noticed. Because… Bing.
Microsoft wrote that “Starting from April of this year, we used large transformer models to deliver the largest quality improvements to our Bing customers in the past year.”
“For example, in the query ‘what can aggravate a concussion’, the word ‘aggravate’ indicates the user wants to learn about actions to be taken after a concussion and not about causes or symptoms.”
They also claim to be now using BERT on a much larger scale than Google.
How to Prepare for Bedlam
The BERT and Bedlam updates have one other massive thing in common: There’s not a damn thing you can do to optimize for either of them. Well, that’s not totally true. To be more specific, there is nothing you can do outside of what you already should have been doing.
Both of these updates are Google’s way of algorithmically tapping into the way that human beings actually speak (and search), helping the algo understand more of the intricacies of language to provide better search results.
Simply put, Google continues to try to think more like a human being. So, the only way to optimize your pages and your content is to write for human beings. And you should already be doing that!
If you have been writing content for Google’s bots (instead of human users), you now have a New Year’s resolution that you have to stick to for 2020.
Local SEO for BERT, Bedlam and Beyond
You can’t do anything to optimize your site for the Bedlam update, for the reasons we’ve just explored. However, you can use it as an excuse to make sure the rest of your local SEO optimization game is where it needs to be.
The good news is that a lot of the steps and tactics you need to take to rank locally can be done for free. Despite the popular myth, it’s hard to buy local SEO success.
For example, about 80% of Google My Business (GMB) listings are incomplete or inaccurate. That is pretty much daring your competition to outrank you. It’s actually clasping your hands together and offering them a boost.
Moz has identified that your GMB listing as one of the most important ranking signals. They estimate that it accounts for about 25% of your ability to rank locally.
It’s also free of charge. It only costs you the time it takes to do things the right way. According to Moz’s data, it holds more SEO weight than your on-page optimization and your social media combined.
You’re probably investing a lot of time and budget into your social and your on-page content, so let’s make sure you’re not negating all of that with a bad GMB listing.
Here’s what a well-optimized listing should have.
NAP (name, address, and phone number)
This is so crucial, and yet, so many businesses forget to update this.
A searcher’s location in proximity to your address will impact the search results they see. So, if you run a bicycle shop and someone in your area gets a flat tire, you want to ensure your business shows up as right around the corner.
If you move locations or add a second location, ensure you update it in GMB.
A Google Short Name
This is the latest addition to the GMB listing. If you haven’t touched your settings since April of this year, you definitely need to update this.
Don’t try to stuff keywords here. Go with a simple combination of YourNameYourLocation that falls under 32 characters. Using the bike shop example from above, you could go with DansBikesAndBoardsQueenWest.
You can change this up to 3 times a year, so you can try different combinations.
Don’t treat this as an afterthought! Write a quick and concise business description. But, you need to be absolutely sure you follow Google’s guidelines.
Be sure to include any relevant products and services you offer. Something like, “We’re Toronto’s foremost bicycle sales and repair shop, offering such trusted names as Yeti, GT and Kona.” But do not stuff keywords in there by writing something like, “We sell mountain bikes in Toronto. We also repair mountain bikes in Toronto. We sell the Yeti SB130 Turq T1 Bike 2020 Storm, the Yeti SB140 Carbon C2 Bike 2020 Turquoise…”
If you’re going to add some numbers to help sell yourself, you can use milestone numbers such as, “We have 10,000 happy subscribers” or “Voted Toronto’s #1 Bike shop by BlogTo.” However, you cannot include any prices or promotional offers like, “Right now a Spring tuneup is $18.99.”
You also can’t include any links or URLs, so don’t add your website or any social links.
Business Category and Subcategory
If you’re in a traditional and straightforward business like law or food service, you can probably match your offerings and business to the categories or sub-categories provided. However, if you’re in a newer sector or you have a complex business, it may be harder to match up.
Do the best you can and refer to Google’s support page if you have any questions.
How many images do you need? Well, the more the merrier.
Google recommends that you have at least:
- 3 of your exterior
- 3 of your interior
- 3 of the products that you sell
- 3 that are representative of the services you offer
- 3 of the food or drinks you serve (if applicable)
- 1 of your common areas
- 3 of your most popular guest rooms (if applicable)
- 3 showing your management team and your employees
That’s 22 photo possibilities. Do you need all of them? According to BrightLocal, the median number of pictures is about 11.
However, what would happen if you added over 100? According to data from Search Engine Land, businesses with more than 100 images in their listing get:
- 520% more calls than the average business
- 2,717% more direction requests than the average business
- 1,065% more website clicks than the average business
- 960% more search views than the average business
- 3459% more maps views than the average business
- 713% more discovery searches than the average business
- 1038% more direct searches than the average business
As you can see, there is no such thing as too much. However, there is no doubt that images are more valuable to some types of businesses than others. If you’re a law firm, you can likely get by with some good pictures of your building’s front, signage, team and lobby. Just make sure they’re better (and you have more) than your competition.
On the other hand, if you’re a bar, restaurant or hotel, your pictures could make or break your business. You need lots of pictures to tell your story and make people want to call you right now.
Again, all of these things are free to do, and you don’t need to hire an SEO agency to do any of them. You can fill in your own profile using the steps provided above. You can also take your own pictures, or use some of the ones that customers have taken.
The Bedlam update is not actually all that crazy. It’s another step forward towards Google matching their algo to the way people actually talk, and the words they would actually use to search for something.
There is nothing you can really do to optimize for it besides writing for human users (instead of Google bots) and use this as an excuse to make sure your Google My Business profile is tight.
A strong and well-optimized GMB profile isn’t going to guarantee ranking success. However, ignoring it will damn sure guarantee you’re working way too hard in other aspects of your SEO work. It’s amazing how many businesses pay thousands of dollars to bloggers and social gurus, yet skip over this absolutely free and absolutely crucial step.
If you want to make 2020 your best SEO year ever, give us a call at the number at the top of the screen!