Search engine optimization (SEO) continues to be a constantly evolving sector. SEO teams must remain agile and adaptable as leading search engines, most notably Google, continue to alter their search engine algorithms and add new technologies. Over the past several years, SEO experts have had to maintain a balance of leveraging the latest algorithm changes as effectively as possible without diminishing the quality of their content and website performance. The latest changes to the Google Search algorithm have once again changed the SEO landscape, and it’s essential to adapt in 2020.
In October of 2019, Google implemented another set of massive changes to the search algorithm. While Google updates the search algorithm on a daily basis, this set of changes was particularly disruptive because it included the underlying hardware to support the upcoming BERT update, a natural language processing (NLP) system intended to make search more effective for users who use voice activation when searching online. With the new Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) system, Google can interpret natural language more efficiently and with better accuracy.
How Does an NLP System Like BERT Work?
The Google BERT update includes a host of changes to consider when developing strategies for 2020 and beyond. BERT is a complex system that can intuit what a searcher wants to find based on tone of voice, intonation, syntax, and various other vocal cues. Current search technology functions using text-based searches and does so quite effectively, but the average person speaks very differently than they type. As voice search becomes a more commonly used tool, BERT is going to completely shift SEO in the Google environment.
Google reports that the recent BERT update affects about 10% of searches performed on the Google search engine. While this may not sound like much, when you understand how many Google searches happen on a given day (about 3.5 billion), it’s actually a massive swathe of searches and a very influential change. Even a conservative estimate of three billion searches in a given day means that BERT could influence search results for 300 million searches.
NLP technology functions around prediction. When a searcher uses concrete terms such as specific figures, locations, names, and concepts, the search engine can quickly recognize what the searcher is trying to find and offer several suggested completion options for the searcher’s query. When a user searches with vague terms or terms that can apply to a wide range of topics, the search engine has a much harder time trying to parse this query and the results can vary widely depending on the searcher’s terms. An NLP algorithm can “read between the lines” and intuit a searcher’s intention better than text-based search algorithms can parse through vague text-based searches.
How BERT Is Changing SEO for Small Businesses
Small business owners face a plethora of challenges on the marketing front. Most small companies compete with big-box stores on the retail front and franchise-based service providers in service-based markets. Digital marketing is a necessary part of running a small business. SEO has been very challenging for many small business owners over the last several years. Few small businesses have the financial flexibility to invest in robust digital marketing teams or extensive outsourced digital marketing services. Small businesses on shoestring budgets typically strive to make do with what they have available and throw together something resembling a coherent digital marketing strategy.
The new BERT update holds potential to be both a boon and a problem for many small businesses when it comes to SEO. It’s now necessary to configure an SEO strategy around NLP concepts, such as accounting for searches performed with voice recognition technology. Many small businesses spent innumerable hours stressing over their SEO strategies to achieve acceptable results. They’re now concerned that the BERT update will make their efforts meaningless and destroy the progress they’ve made through hard work over the last few years.
However, small businesses that have been following accepted best practices for their content over the last few years won’t need to worry about much. Google’s BERT update will continue to do what the Google Search algorithm has done for the past few years when it comes to ranking digital content. Companies that create high-quality content intended for human readers will likely see very little difference in their SEO results. The Google BERT update intends to make search query interpretation easier for the search engine by interpreting natural language more easily. If your small business has been publishing content intended for a human audience, you’re already ahead of the curve.
Taking Advantage of Voice Search for Your Business
Small business owners who already develop high-quality content intended for human readers may not need to change much when it comes to preserving their Search rankings following the BERT update, but it’s a good idea to attempt to capitalize on the changes to voice search. Voice search started with smartphones, but now it’s expanded to all types of devices from personal computers to smart appliances and digital assistant devices like Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Home system.
Ultimately, voice search is a dialogue system intended to carry on conversations with human users. NLPs make dialogue systems more accurate and more natural, allowing the search engines that implement NLPs to deliver more accurate and relevant search results to voice searches. Voice search is also ideal for mobile devices. Internet traffic through mobile devices continues to skyrocket, overshadowing desktop traffic by a significant margin that seems to widen every year. Optimizing SEO content for voice search goes hand-in-hand with the currently accepted best practice of designing content with a mobile-first perspective.
Splitting Your Focus Between Traditional Content SEO and NLP SEO
If you work in SEO for small business or are attempting to revamp your small business’s SEO strategy to account for the rise of voice search, sticking with your current content strategy may be viable, but only to a degree. Since voice search is a dialogue system, you need to start thinking of ways to incorporate intuitive answers to the questions your ideal searchers are most likely to ask when there’s an opportunity to lead them toward your brand.
You don’t necessarily need to develop separate content development strategies for SEO and NLP-enabled SEO, but you should incorporate a few key concepts into your current content strategy while maintaining its focus on human readers. Since voice searchers are likely to phrase their searches as direct questions, those questions are going to be more nuanced than a typical text-based search. Question keywords and long-tail keywords are becoming more important as voice search starts to command a larger share of search traffic. While past SEO rules demanded eliminating “filler words” between individual keywords, often leading to very creatively constructed written content at times, those filler words are now important parts of your keyword strings and will help you nail voice search SEO. Voice searchers aren’t going to speak in fragmented sentences and use random sets of keywords to search; they’re going to speak in complete, natural sentences. Your keyword strategy should reflect this shifting trend in 2020 and beyond.
Ultimately, it’s best to develop a cohesive SEO strategy that appeals to the rules of both standard SEO content and content optimized for NLP SEO. Try to find a good balance between keyword strings designed to capture text-based search results and NLP search results for voice activated searches. Learning to capture both types of traffic will ensure you stay ahead of the game as the SEO landscape shifts more and more to accommodate the growing share of search traffic dominated by voice searches.