Is Google’s BERT Update the Death of SEO Writing?

As someone who has done a lifetime of so-called SEO writing over the years, I gotta say, I have never like that term. To me, SEO writing is sort of awful writing.

SEO makes it sound like the focus is solely on the search engines, ignoring human users. It sort of brings to mind the terrible and keyword-stuffed blogs and web pages we saw around the turn of the century.

So, I was very pleased to see Google’s Danny Sulivan say this when explaining how to optimize your content for Google’s new massive BERT update.

do nothing BERT Google

google bert update

What sweet, sweet music to our ears.

For years, there has been a growing movement in SEO agencies to stop writing for Google and start writing for human users. The BERT update will hopefully give us all the green light to really double down on this idea.

What is the Google BERT Update?

Of course, you need to be aware of the BERT Update. But, you also need to be aware of the fact that there is nothing that you or your SEO firm can do to optimize for it; Besides write good content. But more on that later.

The BERT update stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. It’s basically an open-sourced neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) pre-training.

Ok, now in English. BERT is AI that helps the Google Search algorithm better understand and adapt to the subtle intricacies of or language, in order to give everyone better search results.

How does that work? Take a look at this before and after example provided by Google: 

Parking google bert

Google said that: 

“In the past, a query like this would confuse our systems–we placed too much importance on the word “curb” and ignored the word ‘no’, not understanding how critical that word was to appropriately responding to this query. So we’d return results for parking on a hill with a curb!”

Or take a look at this example.

Google bert update

The algo before BERT didn’t quite grasp the usage of “for someone” in that query. The searcher wanted to know if they could pick up medication on behalf of someone else. The first search result would likely have meant the searcher would have to try some other combination of words, perhaps including “on behalf of” to get the results they want.

However, in the after-BERT example on the right, the algo now recognizes how the words “for someone” completely alters the meaning of the inquiry and provides a better result on the first search.

This is expected to have a major impact on snippets in the SERPS.

What Should I Do if I See an Increase After the BERT Update?

BERT gipfy

Does this mean you have the best SEO agency in the world?

This is certainly a sign that you’re doing the right things. If you see an uptick in rankings and traffic after BERT, odds are pretty good that you were one of the under-rewarded sites we spoke of earlier. The Google algo didn’t quite see how good your content was, but now they do. Again, there is nothing to do but maintain your commitment to creating good content. Don’t slow down now!

If you’re tempted to take your foot off the gas now that you’ve achieved the #1 ranking (or at least higher than your competition), please know that your competition is almost certainly going to notice that they have dropped in the rankings and double their efforts to regain it. You’re going to have to fight to keep these results.

What Should I Do if I See a Drop After the BERT Update?

No, you don’t need to fire your SEO agency just yet. There are literally thousands of things that can result in a sudden ranking drop. However, if you saw a sudden and significant drop last week, odds are very good it was because of the update. Blame BERT.

Analytics screen google bert update

Does a drop in traffic and ranking mean you’re not writing for users and focusing too much on search engines? Maybe. But there is another possibility.

It could be a similar situation to Google’s so-called-Medic update a few months ago. When asked what to do about a drop in rankings following the update, Google tweeted the response:

“As with any update, some sites may note drops or gains. There’s nothing wrong with pages that may now perform less well. Instead, it’s that changes to our systems are benefiting pages that were previously under-rewarded.”

So, it may not be a matter of you doing the wrong things. It could be a matter of your competition previously being under-rewarded for doing the right things, which gives them a little bump over you.

However, if you choose to use this as motivation to go all-in on creating better and more user-focused content, we support this 100%. This is absolutely never a bad decision to make and we can pretty much guarantee that the next Google update will also reward high-quality content. And so will the one after that.

Google is Begging for Quality, So Give it to Them

As we said, focusing on humans (and not robots) in your content writing has been a mantra in digital marketing for some time. And it’s one that we firmly, firmly believe in.

But, some of the best SEO firms still aren’t embracing this concept, even though Google is often the one trumpeting it.

Whenever Google takes to the Twitter-verse to explain what to do and how to prepare for their big update de jour, their messaging is often something like, “Just keep creating quality content.”

Google’s reps are always huge proponents of quality. In fact, John Mueller famously handed out some tough love in a help forum from a question about why someone’s site wasn’t being indexed.

“However, looking at the content, it seems a bit questionable to me, and I feel there’s still a lot of work to be done with regards to its quality,” said Mueller, bluntly.

“My recommendation would be to take the site down, and start over fresh with unique, compelling, and high-quality content that you spend time working on… Make something awesome, don’t just make a website.”

Elsewhere, we pointed out at the top of the blog that Google Danny Sullivan’s response to the BERT update was to focus on quality and write for the user. He said essentially the same thing back in August after a broad core update.

“As explained, pages that drop after a core update don’t have anything wrong to fix… We suggest focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”

Bert update google

Writing for Human Users and Search Engines

If you click on that Danny Sullivan link at the end of the previous section, you can see he also provides a checklist of sorts to ensure you’re publishing quality content. There’s a lot there, but that’s a good thing.

Following his advice means you’re committing to taking content seriously.

To be honest, most SEO agencies have not taken content seriously for the last few years. In fact, most feel inconvenienced that their blogs have to contain 975 other words to go along with their 25 keywords… and it shows.

Their checklist before publishing a blog would be:

  • Is the keyword in the title and the lead? (Yes /No)
  • Is there a keyword density of 2.5%? (Yes /No)
  • Is the blog free of spelling/ grammar errors? (Yes /No)

At no point would they ask:

  • Does this blog suck? (Yes /No)

Does this blog suck seems like such a simple question to answer, but SEO agencies have had a tough time answering it. To them, it’s abstract or subjective. It doesn’t fit on a spreadsheet.

We could fill 1,000 blogs on how to write better blogs. However, here are just a few things SEO agencies need to stop doing ASAP.

STOP Writing Boring Headlines

Boring leads and headlines will kill the blog and the reader’s interest before it even starts. They’re not going to read this just because you wrote it. You have to earn their click and their read.

It may help to write the lead last, after you have a better understanding of the story and know the most interesting part.

STOP Burying the Lead

If the headline makes a promise, you had better fulfill it right away.

For example, if you write a blog about how to install a showerhead, you had better not write 1,000 words about the best showerheads you should buy in 2019 before you write about how to install one. That’s called burying the lead and human readers absolutely hate it.

STOP Using One-off or Random Writers

If you use a content ordering system, you could get 4 writers working on 4 different blogs for the same client in the same month. This creates terrible content because each of those writers has no previous experience with this client and may not even have any in that industry.

Build content plans with the intent of finding a writer who can work on the same client, month after month. This way they can learn the client’s audience, offering, and industry.

STOP Using Passive Sentences

Some writers do it because they don’t know any better. Some do it because they’re trying to bump up the word count.

Yes, it has a time and place. But, too much of a passive voice puts your reader to sleep. It just reads like filler. So, write “I opened the box” instead of “The box was something that I opened.”

If you’re not sure of the difference between a passive and active voice, you can click here. Hint, that last sentence was passive.

Final Thoughts

We know, we know. Being told that you can’t optimize for an update this big can leave you feeling a bit uneasy.

However, there is a difference between not being able to optimize for BERT, and not being able to increase your odds of ranking in a post-BERT world.

Write great content that focuses on what the user would like, not what the search engines are probably looking for. Of course, get your keywords in there, but work them in organically. Don’t write a blog that reads like its only goal is to rank. Write blogs with the goal of entertaining or educating the reader and the rankings will come.

If you have any questions about BERT or any other Google updates, please feel free to reach out to us any time.

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