Google’s BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) update last October upended search results for many organizations these past few months.
Google even called it “one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of search.”
Here’s what the fuss is about and how to stay atop rankings, regardless of future updates:
1. Realize that context is now king. “Don’t fall for BERT fearmongering,” says Alan Bush, SEO instructor at the University of California San Diego and vice president of Ignite Visibility. “It’s just the technology Google is using to better understand ‘natural language processing.’”
That means Google is now analyzing the context around your keywords to better determine your content’s purpose.
“Google can now determine if you’re posting content just to influence rankings,” he says. “You could get dinged if the content around your keywords doesn’t provide meaningful or helpful context for readers as similar content does on trusted sites.”
This is a positive development if you avoid fluff and outsourced keyword filler.
“It’s only a threat if your content is SEO bait,” says Bush. “For example, your language usage might be acceptable, but the context could be unclear if your content is written by a service where English isn’t a first language. Google should now pick up on that.”
Translation: Write for people and their pain points instead of search engines. Ask yourself, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
2. Revisit the E-A-T framework. SEO pros first saw E-A-T when Google’s search quality guidelines leaked five years ago. They’re now more important than ever.
“BERT and E-A-T are hugely correlated,” Bush says. “They both gauge a site’s value to real people.” Keep these SEO pillars in mind every time you pen or post content:
- Expertise: This refers to you—the content creator. “Show expertise by providing helpful advice and translating it to the layman,” Bush says. “BERT will compare your content and its language/phrasing/context against other authority figures.”
Medical/financial/legal/tax advice and journalistic articles are examples of high-stakes expertise pages. Consider hiring a freelance journalist with recognized expertise to post this type of content. Also consider hiring an editor to review copy, as incorrect statistics or citations hurt your “expertise” in Google.
- Authoritativeness: This refers to your content. Authoritative content includes news, trend pieces, case studies, research, posts or landing pages that include data or hard numbers and proof points.
“Authoritativeness is also determined by how many people are referencing, quoting or linking to you,” says Bush, “so share content whenever possible.”
- Trustworthiness: This is trickier—it’s related to traffic, sentiment analysis and sites that people visit regularly. “Visitor numbers and credibility help,” he says. “For example, a mention from The New York Times will boost trustworthiness.”
3. Start with free keyword research. Great SEO begins and ends with great content that your audience loves. “You first find out what your audience is searching for and then you create content that delivers on that,” says Bush. “It starts with keyword research.”
Here are three of his favorite free keyword research tools to get you started:
- Answer the Public: Type in a keyword and the site provides a visual map of common questions, prepositions and comparisons you can use in your copy related to your keyword or phrase.
“It’s an amazing content ideation tool for blog posts and landing pages,” says Bush. “You can use the results to answer questions about your topic on your website or to write an article that includes some of the search phrases you find.”
- SEMrush: “This powerful tool helps you determine where you rank for keywords compared to competitors,” says Bush. “It also helps you identify gaps in keyword usage.” You can find the free demo version here.
Bush also recommends the SEMrush Rank Chrome extension, which gives you an instant competitive SEO snapshot of any site you’re visiting.
- SEO Book Keyword Tool: This free keyword research site links directly to Google Trends, Google Suggest and Google Adwords estimate tools. “It also allows you to export SEO research in CSV format,” says Bush.
Brian Pittman is a Ragan Communications consultant and event producer. Carolyn Shelby (SEO manager at the Walt Disney Co.), Alan Bush (SEO and digital marketing instructor at the University of California, San Diego) and Caitlin Angeloff (director of social strategy at Providence St. Joseph Health) will share more SEO insights in Ragan’s Jan. 17 webinar virtual summit, “New Google Skills for Communicators.”