If you pay close attention to your website analytics, you may have noticed a slight change in the way your organic traffic looks. It may be slightly down. But, you don’t need to worry. Let’s walk through why.
Part 1: Understanding The BERT Update
In late 2019, Google implemented an update to their search algorithm. This update utilized Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) in how it “taught” the algorithm to perform searches.
But, let’s back up for a second here:What sparked this update? When a user performs a search, they may not always know the best way to ask a question. They may not know how to spell a word, or even the right words to use. The goal of a Google search is to understand the language being used in order to aid the answering of the question. Oftentimes, if Google is not serving up pages that answer the question, users will have to try several different combinations of keywords in an attempt to get the answers they need.
So, Google set out to solve this problem. How can they answer conversational questions? Why should a user be forced to type in a random string of keywords to only maybe get the answer they are looking for? So, they introduced and open-sourced a neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP) pre-training called BERT.
Ok, we are caught up now. So what does BERT do, exactly? It lets you ask questions to Google like you would a human. It takes into account small things like prepositions and word order. Some examples:
Part 2: SERP Updates
In recent months, Google has made a lot of updates to the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). These updates have made it possible for users to get answers without leaving the results page. But, your content can actually benefit from this change. Although users may not click through to your site, if Google deems that your content is the authority on the matter, it may choose your page for a featured snippet at the top of the SERP.
Let’s look at the query, “Why are penguins black and white”:
In this instance, Cool Australia was deemed the authority on penguins, and Google gave their answer directly. This is beneficial to the user because they get their answer faster. And yes, it does mean less click-throughs to the website. But, when Google gives a site the authority to be a featured snippet, we have seen it boost the overall searchability of a site.
So, Why is Organic Search Down?
The short answer: it’s not, really.
The long answer: When the BERT update was made, many sites may have seen a slight fall in organic traffic. But, they also most likely saw an increase in conversions. (We saw it with several of our clients.). Why is this? It’s simple: Google started serving content to the appropriate audience. Let’s dive into a real client example, with some identifying details changed for privacy.
Before BERT, there was a blog post (Piece A) on Good Company’s website that pre-dated their relationship with us. It brought a lot of traffic to their website. More than any other piece, actually. But, it very rarely led to any conversions.
After BERT, we noticed something interesting. Piece A started to see less views. Not a dramatic drop, but slightly less than it normally would in a given month. But Piece B, something we had written a few months earlier, and that addressed a very specific issue this audience was experiencing, was beginning to climb. Here’s a look at how Piece B started to perform after BERT:
Nothing on this page changed over the course of time, but Google got better at knowing what its users were looking for, and started to serve it up to parties interested. The coolest part? Piece B led to eight direct conversions from the blog post in May 2020, more than Piece A has gotten in the 3 years we have been tracking it.
What Does This Mean for Me?
If you have noticed a slight dip in your organic traffic, don’t worry! The people coming to your site now have more purpose to be there than they did several months ago. As Google continues to learn how to best process language input into the search engine, user intent will only grow.
This update ultimately boils down to one thing, and it’s something that we have always known. That creating quality, engaging content for your audience, that answers a question or solves a problem, then you are doing your part to help Google answer user questions and you will be rewarded for your efforts.
There are certain tactics that were used once upon a time—link wheels, duplicate content across multiple pages of a website, etc—that may still lead to a fast but temporary boost in site traffic, but those actions may ultimately hurt your website in the long run.
If you have questions about creating great content, we’d love to chat!