Google’s role is a simple one, in theory: take queries from users and then serve them results that are the most likely to answer the question, or provide the content that the user is looking for. In practice, of course, things are more complex.

Google’s Challenge

Considering that roughly 63,000 searches are conducted on Google every second, Google needs to have a highly efficient, educated and automated system (or algorithm) that parses our inputted queries, attempting to “understand” them, before spitting out the most relevant results. 

Google’s latest algorithm update brings about a really smart, and self-teaching system that will only make results more accurate, not by being better at understanding the meanings of individual words, but the relationship of words to other words in a search query.

What’s Changed?

Let’s take the example phrase that Google used when briefing journalists in October 2019: “Can you get medicine for someone pharmacy”. In the past, Google treated queries “like a bag of words”, providing you with results that were the most relevant to the most words in the query. 

Now, using natural language processing (NLP) techniques developed by Google researchers, the search engine attempts to learn the relationship between words. The NLP system they have been developing is dubbed the Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, or, for us laymen, BERT.

The nuances of the sample query above, is that the searcher is looking for information about whether they `can pick up medicine on someone else’s behalf at a pharmacy. This Before/After screenshot from Google below illustrates the improvement in how Google now handles this query:

With the BERT model, Google now does a better job by understanding that “for someone” is an operative part of this user’s query, whereas previously that meaning was lost, with general results about filling prescriptions.

What should you do?

Google’s gone out on a limb and predicted that as many as one in every ten searches are going to be impacted by this update to their algorithm. However, the nature of the update is such that there’s not much one can do to capitalise on the update, or prepare for any potential drop in rankings. 

If anything, the traffic that is lost will be that traffic that a website was not “meant” to be getting in the first place, as the update only serves to provide more accurate, helpful results to users. 

Why should you care?

So, if there’s nothing that we can do about it, why should you care? Well, for one, take note of this quote from Pandu Nayak, VP of Search at Google, describing the BERT update:

“this is the single biggest … most positive change we’ve had in the last five years and perhaps one of the biggest since the beginning.” 

When the VP of Search at Google tells you this is potentially the biggest update in Google’s history, how can you NOT care? 

Although there’s nothing to be done in the short term about BERT, it’s definitely something we need to be aware of in order to ensure we have the best understanding of our clients’ websites’ performance. 

Honourable Mention For This Edition Of The 1 Thing:

It was a very lively debate in our fortnightly round-table discussion this time around. We eventually settled on BERT being the 1 Thing, considering what a huge impact it will have on the web at large, despite not being something particularly actionable for our clients. 

The runner up and very honourable mention of this 1 Thing is another Google related update, this time to do with extensions to its Google Ads platform. 

Lead Forms Now Featuring in Google Ads

Over the last few weeks, Google has been testing ad extensions that have the ability to capture leads. Once a searcher taps a call to action button, they can quickly submit a form which is pre-populated with contact information directly from their Google account.

See an image of the form builder below:

This, unlike the looming spectre of BERT, is something we can – and will – action for clients with services that suit this type of lead form! Advertisers have reported an increase in  closing rates of as much as 20% in using this new Ad Extension, so it’s definitely something we’re looking forward to trialing.


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